QUINCY -- Father Augustine Tolton of Quincy moved a step closer to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church when Pope Francis on Wednesday 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, a vital declaration when being considered 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 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 process to achieve sainthood continues -- something the Diocese of Springfield and Archdiocese of Chicago have been working on together since 2003.
The Rev. Daren Zehnle, pastor at St. Augustine parish in Ashland, is a Quincy native who has helped in the canonization process. Zehnle said he was thrilled to learn that Tolton has been declared venerable.
"I'm excited enough I could burst," he said. "The news was unexpected. We expected it would come at some point (possibly next fall), but we didn't think it would be this early. So it came as a great joy when I saw the news this morning."
The significance of the Pope giving Tolton the title of venerable is that the Catholic Church now confirms Tolton "lived a Christian life in a degree that most of us don't do -- that he went above and beyond what's expected of the normal Christian," Zehnle said.
Now that Tolton been declared venerable, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome can start investigating whether any miraculous healings can be attributed to Tolton's intercession. If one such miracle can be found to have occurred, Tolton would be declared "blessed," Zehnle said. Then if a second miracle could be confirmed, he would become a saint.
Zehnle said at least two potential miracles have already been submitted for investigation. However, Rome officials couldn't begin reviewing the reports until Tolton was declared venerable.
That's why the pope's declaration Wednesday was deemed as a major step forward in the canonization process.
"It's huge," Zehnle said.
Tolton was born a slave on April 1, 1854, in the Ralls County, Mo., community of Brush Creek, near Monroe City.
When the Civil War broke out, Tolton's father reportedly fled to join the Union Army, as did many slaves at that time. Then in 1862, Tolton's mother escaped across the Mississippi River with her three children to the free state of Illinois. They settled in Quincy.
Tolton faced prejudice throughout his life, even in Quincy. At one point as a child he enrolled at St. Boniface parochial school, but prejudice forced him out after one term. He was subsequently admitted to St. Peter's school.
According to Herald-Whig news files, Tolton showed an early interest in religious matters, and he was taken under wing by several Quincy clergymen, who tutored him privately.
Tolton's education received a major boost when he was permitted to enter St. Francis College (now Quincy University). Tolton wanted to enter the priesthood, but no seminary in America would accept him because of his race.
He finally began seminary studies in Rome in 1880. He was ordained on April 24, 1886. The following day he said Mass for the first time over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome.
Although Tolton had hoped to become an African missionary, he was assigned initially to Quincy, where he celebrated his first Mass on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface. The following Sunday, Tolton was installed as pastor of Quincy's St. Joseph Church, a black congregation.
After several years Tolton was reassigned to Chicago, where he organized a black parish called St. Monica's. He remained in Chicago until he died of heat stroke at age 43 on July 9, 1897.
Tolton was buried in Quincy in the priests' lot at St. Peter's Cemetery. At the time, his grave was dug deeper than other graves so that the casket of another priest could later be placed atop his -- a practice common in those days.
In 1914, the Catholic Church buried the body of Father John Patrick Kerr -- the former pastor of St. Peter's Church -- in the same plot as Tolton. For more than a century many Quincyans believed Kerr's metal casket was positioned directly above Tolton's wooden casket.
"That was the local legend, but it turned out to be quite untrue," Zehnle told The Herald-Whig Wednesday.
Zehnle got some special insights on Dec. 10, 2016, when he served as the official notary as Tolton's body was exhumed by the church to be examined for historical verification as part of the canonization process.
"We had anticipated finding one of them on top of the other or right next to each other," Zehnle said. But as it turned out, the bodies of the two priests were buried on opposite sides of the cross marking their graves.
"We found out, thankfully, before we started digging," Zehnle said.
He said a local funeral home brought in some high-tech ground-scanning equipment to detect the precise location of the caskets "and figured out who was buried where."