By Maria Wiering
ST. PAUL, Minn. — An annual procession to Father Augustus Tolton’s gravesite in Illinois will be joined next year by pilgrims walking the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage en route to Indianapolis, the Diocese of Springfield’s worship director announced July 9. Declared “venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019, Father Tolton (1854-1897) is the U.S.’s first identifiable Black Catholic priest and one of six African Americans with ongoing causes for canonization.
Father Daren Zehnle shared the news with more than 200 pilgrims who participated in this year’s procession from a parish with ties to Father Tolton in Quincy, Illinois, to his gravesite almost a mile away.
“I hope it leads more people to seek his intercession, so, God willing, we can have a miracle to attribute to him to make him a ‘blessed,’ ” said Father Zehnle, a Quincy native, about the plans for the 2024 pilgrimage. “Tolton certainly had a devotion to the Eucharist. He was a priest. … I think what you see in Tolton is that life of long suffering, of patience, of humility — that was surely all fruits of a Eucharistic devotion of seeking a union after Jesus himself. I think Tolton can show us the way to do that in our own lives.”
Father Zehnle is not only the leader but also the founder of the Quincy pilgrimage, which he launched in 2016 after spending several years studying in Rome, where he had grown accustomed to making walking pilgrimages to holy sites associated with saints. He realized that his 2016 return to the Springfield Diocese fell a few weeks before the 130th anniversary of Father Tolton’s return to Illinois from Rome, so he and some friends organized a walk to his grave on that date. In 2017, Father Zehnle moved the pilgrimage to the anniversary of Father Tolton’s death, July 9.
Last year marked the 125th anniversary of Father Tolton’s death, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield joined the pilgrimage and celebrated Mass at Father Tolton’s grave.
“Every year we seem to get a few more people, and they just really enjoy it,” Father Zehnle said. “We pray for his (Father Tolton’s) canonization. We pray that we might follow his example more closely. We pray for an end to racism. We pray for more priests to serve at altars in our diocese.”
Father Tolton was renowned not only for his holiness and preaching, but also for the considerable adversity he faced as the first publicly known Black priest in late 1800s America.
When Father Tolton was a child, his mother fled with her children from a Missouri plantation across the Mississippi River to freedom in Illinois. Prevented from entering seminary in the U.S., he studied for the priesthood in Rome and planned to become a missionary in Africa. However, at Rome’s direction, he instead returned to the U.S. as a missionary following his priestly ordination in 1886.
Father Tolton’s mission began in his hometown of Quincy; however he was essentially driven out by a local German priest jealous of his popularity. Father Tolton then went in 1889 to minister among a burgeoning Black Catholic population in Chicago. He died almost eight years later at age 43.
“This was a strong man of prayer” who overcame racism and other challenges with charity, said Valerie Jennings, interim director of the Tolton Spirituality Center in Chicago.
She hopes that the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage connecting with the Quincy pilgrimage in 2024 will express the church’s unity around the Eucharist, noting that Father Tolton himself “was a unifier.”
“What else brings us together as a church but the Eucharist?” Jennings asked.
The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage includes four routes beginning May 17-19, 2024, from different points in the U.S. Pilgrims on those routes will converge in Indianapolis July 16, 2024, ahead of the five-day National Eucharistic Congress. The congress event is the pinnacle of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops underway.
Will Peterson, founder and president of Modern Catholic Pilgrim, the St. Paul, Minnesota-based nonprofit organizing the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, said Father Tolton is the first of the “Saintly Six” — referring to the Black American Catholics on the path to canonization — officially to be linked geographically to the national pilgrimage. He hopes others will be as well, as the routes are expected to pass through Baltimore; New Orleans; and La Crosse, Wisconsin — places connected, respectively, to Mother Mary Lange, Sister Henriette Delille and Sister Thea Bowman, whose causes are in various stages.
All four of the national routes are under a saint’s patronage, and pilgrims traveling them are scheduled to visit saints’ shrines along their way to Indianapolis. While each route will include “perpetual pilgrims” who will cover the entire distance, organizers anticipate Catholics will join those pilgrims for hours, days or weeks as they pass through dioceses across the country.
“It seems providential that we could be in this area, and it just aligns with what we’re trying to do: engage with each diocese along each route with how they see the (National Eucharistic) Revival working within their diocese,” Peterson said of connecting with the Father Tolton pilgrimage. “We’re excited to be able to support the local church and to honor our saintly leaders of the church.”