Tuesday, November 23, 2021

SLAVE TO SAINT: THE ROLE OF MY PARISH OF "OLD SAINT THERESA"


The Home Parish of His Mother, Maternal Grandparents and Uncle

Father Augustus John Tolton

1854 - 1897

A slave, who became America's first black priest, is on the path to sainthood. He studied in Rome and was ordained there because no American seminary, back then, would accept a black man. 


HIS GRANDMOTHER'S TOMBSTONE IN THE OLD SAINT THERESA CEMETERY

In memory of, Matildy, consort of Guston Chisley. 
Born 1806 - Died 1836

"Consort" was typically used in those days to designate a "wife." In the history of this family, the names Guston, Gus, Augustus and Augustine are interchangeable. The future Father Augustus Tolton was obviously named after his grandfather "Guston." 

As slaves, Matilda (Matildy) Hurd and Augustus (Guston) Chisley had been "bought at auction" by a local family. They were then married and baptized at St. Theresa Church in Rhodelia (known then as the "Flint Island" area).  

"Matildy" and "Guston" Chisley's daughter, Martha Jane, was born and then baptized at St. Theresa Church like her mother, father and brother, Charles. At the young age of 16, Martha Jane ended up becoming one of the wedding presents given to a local bride and groom. 

After the wedding, Martha Jane's new "owners"  moved her to their new farm in Missouri along with five additional slaves they had received as wedding gifts. In Missouri, young Martha Jane eventually met and married Peter Paul Tolton in 1849, another Catholic slave from a neighboring farm. From their marriage, their son (Fr. Augustus John Tolton) was born, as well as two siblings (Charles and Anne).    

When Martha Jane was taken away to Missouri by her new "owners," her parents and brother (Charles) remained behind at St. Theresa. We presume that all three of them could be buried there, but only Matilda has a surviving tombstone in the old Saint Theresa Cemetery, several feet away from the site of the second log St. Theresa Church. All four were baptized by St. Theresa's first resident pastor, Father Charles Ignatius Coomes (1830-1881). Father Coomes also presided at the wedding of "Matildy" and "Guston" Chisley. Their son, Charles, was named after the pastor who baptized him. 

As deeply saddened and disappointed as I am by our community's long-ago history of participation in the awful business of slavery, I am extremely proud of our connection to such a wonderful soon-to-be American saint. It was at my "old Saint Theresa" parish that his maternal ancestors were first formed and baptized in the Catholic faith that his mother, Martha Jane, was so determined to pass on to her son Augustus - the Catholic faith that governed every aspect of her life and saw her through many trials over the years. After all she went through before and after she gave birth to him, she too is a saint in my book! 

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, one of our talented African American bishops and vice postulator for Father Tolton's canonization cause, heard of my discovery of Father Tolton's grandmother Matilda's tombstone in our old Saint Theresa Cemetery and called me on November 19 to express his excitement about my discovery and to tell me that he had just celebrated a Mass on November 13 for our very own Martha Jane Chisley Tolton (Matilda's daughter) on the 110th anniversary of her death.    

My project of turning the old St. Theresa/Cross Roads School into a new St. Theresa Family Life Center has been the occasion of turning up all kinds of historic tidbits, but to discover that we were the home of the maternal family of a saint-to-be, and still have the grave of his maternal grandmother, Matilda, has to be the most fascinating find yet! 

All year, I have been asking the people of Saint Theresa, since we believe in the "communion of saints," to pray that our saintly ancestors (buried in our three cemeteries)  will intercede for the success of our new project.  It looks like their prayers are being answered in some amazing ways! I especially thank "grandmother Matilda" for her prayers. In gratitude, I promise to have her tombstone cleaned and re-set, and a wreath laid there, in the very near future. May she, and all her family, rest in peace! 


 PRAYER FOR THE CANONIZATION OF FATHER TOLTON            


O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time. We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.

Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.

Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.

                                                                                  Amen

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1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story and how remarkable that the revelation of your findings has spread so extensively. Obviously the good works of Fr Augustus continue to unfold and at what better time does the USA need such a saint.
    God bless your work Fr Ron and be assured of the continued prayers of your Irish friends.

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