QUINCY — Not even the humid 91-degree evening could dampen the enthusiasm of the gathering at St. Peter Catholic Cemetery on Thursday.
A turnout of about 150 people celebrated the 123rd anniversary of the death of the Rev. Augustine Tolton, a onetime Quincy resident.
Tolton is recognized as the first Black priest in the United States and his Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Sainthood is underway in Rome. He died at age 43 in 1897.
"Father Tolton lived in a time where it was a crime to be Black," said the Rev. Peter Chineke, a native of Nigeria and parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield. "Although freed from human slavery, people like (Tolton) lived in oppression, persecution, systemic and institutionalized racisms, abject poverty and discrimination.
"The true Christian life is what (Tolton) lived for the 43 chaotic years of his life on Earth. He lived at a time where being Black was something no one would wish for."
Chineke's emotional and well-received homily punctuated an evening that began with a procession, starting at the base of the statue of Father Tolton outside St. Peter Catholic School at 2500 Maine. The pilgrimage ended at St. Peter Catholic Cemetery on the east side of South 33rd Street, where Tolton is buried.
Dave Cawthon, a Quincy resident among those taking in the celebration, spoke in great admiration of Tolton.
"It is great to be able to come together to celebrate a soon-to-be-saint — and to pray for our community and world," Cawthon said.
The Rev. Daren Zehnle, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield who pastors St. Augustine Parish in Ashland, was coordinator of the event.
Zehnle said he appreciated the size of the turnout and thought it is an ideal time in history to highlight two of Tolton's virtues, notably his kindness and faith.
"Father Tolton's writings always indicated how much he cared," Zehnle said.
Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 on a Northeast Missouri plantation near Brush Creek. He was eventually baptized as a Catholic in a church near Hannibal. As was the custom at the time, slave children were raised in the religion of their owners.
Tolton's father left the family to join the Union Army during the Civil War, but later died of dysentery, according to accounts provided by the Catholic News Service.
In 1862, Tolton's mother, Martha, escaped with her children by rowing them across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. They settled in Quincy.
Tolton showed an early interest in religious matters, and Quincy clergymen privately tutored him. He was permitted to enter St. Francis College — now Quincy University.
Tolton later sought to enter the priesthood, but no American seminary would accept him because of his race. He eventually started seminary studies in 1880 in Rome and was ordained April 24, 1886. The next day he celebrated Mass for the first time over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome.
Tolton had hoped to become an African missionary but was eventually assigned to Quincy. He celebrated his first Mass in Quincy on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church, before he was installed as pastor of Quincy's St. Joseph Church, a Black congregation.
"If he lived in our times, would Father Tolton support the destruction of property and status across the country in protest for brutality, systemic and institutional racisms?" Chineke asked. "Would he support the poor, unfortunate and marginalized minorities to allow themselves to be used by political elites for dangerous and false activities in the guise of protests?
"My dear brothers and sisters, I don't think that Father Tolton would ever support any of those. In the same way, Father Tolton would never have kept quiet over a systematized and institutionalized brutality against minorities.
"Father Tolton, being obedient to the truth and loyal to the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ, would have been, in his little ways, a strong moral voice against the injustices, brutalities and (racism) that continue to make life difficult — and sometimes miserable — for many people in a society they call their home."
Tolton was eventually reassigned from Quincy to Chicago, where he organized a Black parish called St. Monica's. He remained in Chicago until he died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897.