March 5, 2024 | National & World News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Father Augustus Tolton is pictured in an undated photo. Born into slavery in Missouri, he was ordained a priest April 24, 1886, in Rome and said his first Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. He is the first recognized African American priest ordained for the U.S. Catholic Church and is a candidate for sainthood. In 2019, Pope Francis declared he had lived a “virtuous and heroic life,” giving him the title “Venerable.” (OSV News photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)

Tolton scouting patch honors Black priest and model of Eucharistic devotion


(OSV News) — A candidate for sainthood is inspiring Catholic Scouts in Illinois to earn a new patch while deepening their relationship with Christ in the Eucharist.

The Catholic Committee on Scouting in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, has announced the creation of the Venerable Father Augustine Tolton Activity Patch, which honors the first recognized Black priest in the U.S.

Requirements for the patch include learning about Tolton’s life, visiting a seminary or religious community to better understand vocational discernment, modeling Tolton’s patient disposition and engaging in prayer.

Kyle Holtgrave, the diocese’s director for catechesis, told OSV News he designed the rubric for the patch so that Scouts would remain “really focused on listening to God’s call and understanding that God is constantly calling us to a vocation — not necessarily to the priesthood, but he’s calling us to something, and we need to be attentive to that.”

Holtgrave said the inspiration for the Tolton patch came from the upcoming National Eucharistic Congress, set to take place in Indianapolis July 17-21 as the culmination of the three-year National Eucharistic Revival, a grassroots effort by the U.S. bishops to rekindle devotion to the Real Presence.

The Junipero Serra pilgrimage route, one of four leading to the congress, will transit through the Springfield Diocese in time to coincide with an annual July 9 prayer service at Father Tolton’s grave in Quincy, Illinois, said Holtgrave.

“So that gave me the idea of saying, ‘Why don’t we do some kind of scouting activity where we have a number of Catholic chartered units in the diocese, and … get them involved with the Eucharistic procession?'” he said.

With a number of Catholic scouting patches already honoring saints and those on the road to canonization, a Tolton patch immediately came to mind, said Holtgrave, adding that the award will “help Scouts learn about some of the adversities that people (have) had to overcome, not just in society, but even in the church.”

Father Tolton — also known by the first name “Augustus” — confronted seemingly insurmountable obstacles throughout his brief lifetime, sustained by his profound faith.

Born into slavery in 1854, he was raised as a Catholic, the faith held by the Missouri-based families who had purchased his parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane.

When the Civil War broke out, Tolton’s father escaped to serve with the Union Army but soon died of illness. His mother thereafter fled with young Augustus and his two siblings, rowing them across the Mississippi River and eventually reaching Quincy, where they settled.

After working in a factory and attending Catholic schools (often facing harassment in the process), Augustus discerned a religious vocation. He moved to Rome in 1880 to study for the priesthood, since no seminary in the United States would accept him due to his race.

“Even in the church, he had to overcome … the racial biases that existed in that era,” said Holtgrave. “But the Holy Spirit still prevailed and never gave up on Tolton.”

Upon his 1886 ordination, Father Tolton expected to be assigned to pastoral work in Africa, but was instead sent back to the United States, first to Quincy and then later Chicago. Despite repeated rejection, he persisted in his pastoral work, founding St. Monica Parish on Chicago’s South Side. His reverence, humility, zeal and exceptional singing voice drew both Black and white Catholics from all economic classes.

A strenuous pastoral schedule amid poverty likely hastened Father Tolton’s untimely death from heat stroke and uremia in 1897. His canonization cause was formally opened in 2011, and he was declared “Venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019.

Father Tolton’s life mirrored a love for the Eucharist — one that speaks to a new generation, said Holtgrave.

“God (is) present among us in the Eucharist, and it just does wonderful things in the natural world because of our faith,” he said. “And I think that’s what really drove Father Tolton to achieve his goal and understand, ‘I can do this.’

“There’s going to be all kinds of barriers that our human sinfulness puts in the way, but the Eucharist will prevail, and if this is God’s will, it will prevail, and that’s what I think really comes to light with the story of Father Tolton,” said Holtgrave. “The idea is that you try to persevere and do your best, and you never know. … And even if we, you know, if we have to overcome adversities like Father Tolton did, with the Holy Spirit on your side, you’re going to do it. You’re going to do wonderful things, and God’s going to bless you in wonderful ways.”

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News.

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