QUINCY -- A mile-long pilgrimage to commemorate the 122nd anniversary of Venerable Father Augustine Tolton's death will be held starting at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Peter Catholic School, 2500 Maine.
Area Catholics and others devoted to Tolton's legacy as the nation's first black priest are invited to join the trek from the church and school to St. Peter's Cemetery, where prayers, Scripture readings and songs will be sung at Tolton's grave.
The Rev. Daren Zehnle said this is the third year for the procession.
"The last two years we've done it in evening time. I thought this year we'll try it in the morning and hope it will be a little cooler," Zehnle said.
Attendance has ranged from 20 to 35 participants. Zehnle said he does not know whether there will be a larger turnout after news that Tolton received the title "venerable" from Pope Francis last month as one more step along the path toward sainthood.
Born a slave in Missouri on April 1, 1854, Tolton's family was held in servitude at that time in the Brush Creek community within Ralls County.
When the Civil War broke out, Tolton's father reportedly fled to join the Union Army, as did many slaves. In 1862, Tolton's mother escaped across the Mississippi River with her three children to the free state of Illinois and settled in Quincy.
News files from the Herald-Whig indicate that Tolton showed an early interest in religious matters, and Quincy clergymen 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.
Saturday's pilgrimage procession will begin at the statue of Father Tolton outside St. Peter Catholic School. After a few words of welcome and explanation, followed by a prayer, the procession will proceed along the south side of Maine where it will cross onto the east side of South 33rd until it reaches St. Peter Catholic Cemetery.
After entering the cemetery, the procession will stop at Tolton's grave for the celebration of morning prayer at 9:30 a.m., which is composed of Psalms, a reading from Scripture, petitions, and song. Afterward the pilgrims will pray for vocations to the priesthood and more ordinations of priests through Tolton's intercession and for his canonization as a saint. The pilgrimage procession will conclude with the singing of Tolton's favorite song: Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.
Those who wish to participate but cannot walk in the procession are invited to park near the cemetery to meet the procession at the grave. Because of the small size of the cemetery, no one should park in the cemetery itself.
Chairs and bottled water will be provided at the cemetery for those who wish to participate.
The Catholic Diocese of Springfield and the Archdiocese of Chicago began working together in 2003 to achieve sainthood for Tolton. With the Pope declaring him "venerable," Tolton is now considered two steps away from being declared a saint. With the title of venerable, the Catholic Church now affirms that Tolton "lived a Christian life in a degree that must of us don't do" by going above and beyond what is expected of most Christians.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome has started 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.
More information about this event is available from Zehnle at 217-663-8522 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.