QUINCY -- Father Augustine Tolton of Quincy moved a step closer to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church today when Pope Francis proclaimed him "venerable."
The venerable designation means Tolton -- America's first black priest -- is officially recognized as having lived a life of heroic virtue by the Catholic Church, which is vital in his consideration for sainthood.
"Today's news is not only exciting for Catholics across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, but also for the entire Christian world," Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Springfield Diocese said today in a press release.
"Father Tolton's story -- from slave to priest -- is an incredible journey that shows how God has a plan for all of us," Paprocki said. "Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice, and racism, to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after."
Paprocki said now that Father Tolton has been declared venerable, the Diocese of Springfield is exploring having a shrine to honor Tolton. One possible location could be the now-closed St. Boniface Church in Quincy. An announcement on that could come later this year.
In the meantime, the cause for the beatification and canonization of sainthood continues -- something the Diocese of Springfield and Archdiocese of Chicago have been working on together since 2003.
Tolton was born a slave in Brush Creek, Mo., near Monroe City.
During the Civil War in 1862, Tolton's mother and siblings escaped across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. After settling in Quincy, Tolton went to St. Peter's Catholic School, then known as St. Lawrence.
After graduating in 1872 from St. Francis College, now known as Quincy University, Tolton wanted to enter the priesthood. But no seminary in America would accept him because of his race. He eventually began seminary studies in Rome and was ordained there in April 1886.
Although Tolton had hoped to become an African missionary, he was assigned to Quincy, where he arrived to thousands of supporters and celebrated his first Mass in July 1886.
Tolton died at age 43 and is buried in Quincy's St. Peter Cemetery.