Keelan: the first black American saint, maybe

Fr. Augustus Tolton

After many years, Major Baseball League fans recently found out that the legendary Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will not be entering the Baseball Hall of Fame. But Manchester, Vermont resident Jim Kaat will. In Kaat’s case, it has taken decades for a decision. Now, let’s look at what it takes to enter the Hall of Fame for Sainthood. 

Don Keelan

Last November in Baltimore, members of three Catholic churches, St. Ann’s, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Wenceslaus, took on what historically seems like an  impossible task; getting recognition for someone as having the attributes to be declared a Saint by the Catholic Church. 

The parishioners support six individuals they believe have the bona fides to be recognized by Rome for Sainthood. The six, all of whom have passed away, are: Mary Elizabeth Lange (1794-1882), Julia Greely (1833-1918), Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), Thea Bowman (1937-1990), and Henriette Delille(1813-1862).

To be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church takes years, if not centuries. If successful at all. There are four steps in the arduous process; being declared a Servant of God; and then after thorough investigations, being declared Venerable;  followed by beatification, also referred to as Blessed; and finally, canonization or being declared a saint by the reigning Pope.

The issue the above six candidates face is whether they have ever been attributed with any miracles. So far, Toland, Toussaint, and Delille have been referred to as Venerable, but there is still a long way to go. The search for miracles could very well short-circuit their becoming beatified. 

Many of us use the term miracle quite loosely. In movies, “The Miracle of 34th Street”; in baseball, “the miracle catch”; and even in geographic terms, “the miracle mile.”  For the officials at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the word takes on a more profound meaning. The requirements are clear: one miracle must be attributed to the individual being considered for beatification and another for canonization. 

Based on recent reporting in the Wall Street Journal, the Internet, and the National Catholic Register, one can conclude that the journey of becoming a saint is near impossible. 

Take the case of Father Augustus Tolton, the son of enslaved people from Ralls County, Missouri. Numerous books have been written about Tolton, who became the first Black Roman Catholic Priest in America at 31 years of age (died at age 43). 

However, the hardship he faced (as well as the other five) on his journey to becoming a priest seems only to be exceeded by the efforts that are being made to have Rome canonize him. Fr. Tolton was encouraged by his local parish priest to study for the priesthood.  And he did, with every Catholic American seminary turning the Black candidate away. It was suggested that he go to Rome and complete his studies. Tolton did and excelled.

Upon ordination, he returned to America and, soon thereafter, founded St. Monica’s parish in Chicago, the first American Black parish (he also built the church).

To give one an idea of how difficult the process is to be declared a saint, Fr. Tolton’s odyssey did not have its start in November of last year as Francis Rocca recounts in his WSJ piece of December 12, 2021. Rather it began in 2010 when “a file” or investigation was opened by the Church’s hierarchy in Chicago, Springfield, and Tolton’s home county in Missouri. A year later, Fr. Tolton was declared A Servant of God. 

The process continued, and in 2016, it went so far as to exhumed the remains of the late priest. Based on the findings and additional investigation, the title of Venerable was given to Fr. Tolton in 2019.  The investigation continues in search of a miracle attributed to the former enslaved person from Missouri, the same state that another candidate for sainthood, Julia Greely, who was also once enslaved.

Four of the six noted above were enslaved. One would hope that the Vatican would remove the miracle requirement for sainthood and recognize the unspeakable hardship the six endured who gave so much to so many and asked for so little in return. That is the miracle.    

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