Pilgrimage commemorates 120th anniversary of Tolton's death

Fr. Daren Zehnle serving in Springfield pauses at the grave of Father Augustus Tolton after a pilgrimage procession Sunday commemorating the 120th anniversary of his death. The procession began at St. Peter School to St. Peter Cemetery on North 30th where Zehnle conducted a short service. | H-W Photo/Michael Kipley
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 10, 2017 8:25 am Updated: Jul. 10, 2017 10:39 am

QUINCY -- A small crowd of area Catholics honored the memory of the Rev. Augustus Tolton -- the nation's first African-American priest and a candidate for sainthood -- by making a pilgrimage to his grave Sunday.

The Rev. Daren Zehnle, a Quincy native who works in Springfield, Ill., led a half-mile-long procession from St. Peter Catholic School to St. Peter Cemetery, where Tolton is buried, to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the priest's death. An evening prayer was conducted next to his grave.

"Father Tolton's long suffering was his greatest virtue, and he stands as a model of long suffering for us to follow," Zehnle said, explaining that Tolton revealed in letters the prejudice he faced by other priests and residents in the Quincy area.

"He never mentioned in writing or in public the name of the priest who made his life so miserable," Zehnle said. "You might say long-suffering is a way to embrace the cross on which Jesus suffered."

During the evening prayer, the group prayed for more priests through Tolton's intercession and for his canonization as a saint. The ceremony ended with everyone singing his favorite hymn, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name."

Many who attended the evening prayer have been following Tolton's canonization process, which began in 2010. He is recognized as a Servant of God.

"I have been praying so hard to him and for his canonization. I love him dearly," Carolyn Redenius said. "What he and his family went through is a marvelous story of perseverance."

Tené Marie Brink agreed.

"This event gave people a chance to come out and learn more about him," she said. Brink traveled from Edwardsville to be with her family in Quincy this weekend, and she and her mother attended the ceremony together.

"I've been following what's going on. It's pretty cool to know we have an African-American priest here in Quincy whom we can look up to," she said.

The latest development in the priest's canonization process occurred in December. His body was exhumed from St. Peter Cemetery to be examined for historical verification purposes.

"We didn't know where exactly his body was buried (in relation to his headstone)," Zehnle said. Special equipment was used to locate it before digging.

When the body was exhumed, it was learned that Tolton was buried in a wooden casket with a glass top so that people at the time could have viewed the body before burial. It also was discovered that his bones were brittle, Zehnle said.

Tolton, born a slave, grew up in Quincy after his family escaped during the Civil War from Missouri to the free state of Illinois. He attended St. Peter School as a child and graduated in 1872 from what is now known as Quincy University.

Tolton was ordained a priest in Rome and assigned to work Quincy. He celebrated his first Mass here in July 1886.

Because of racial prejudice, he transferred to Chicago in 1889.

Tolton died in Chicago in 1897 at age 43 due to what was ruled as sunstroke.

The process for sainthood typically takes a decade or longer.