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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Sunday, November 21, 2021

SO THEY CALL YOU A KING?



 "My kingdom does not belong to this world. My kingdom is not here."

John 18:33b-37

 

Surely, you have heard the expression “God’s ways are not our ways!” It means that God thinks differently from the way we human beings think and God does things differently from the way human beings do them.  We see the most dramatic example of just how differently God thinks in today’s feast of Christ the King.  Christ our King is presented to us, stripped and naked on a cross, dying in agony between two common criminals, spit running down his face, a sarcastic note nailed above his head, a “crown” of thorns mockingly hammered into the blood-matted hair of his head for all passers-by to laugh at!  Now that’s not exactly how we picture royalty! We are used to seeing kings powerful, pampered and pompous!  Our King is different, very different!  “He bore our infirmities.  He endured our sufferings. He was pierced for our offenses. He was crushed for our sins.”

Showing up as this kind of “king” is so typical of God.  He has always done this kind of shocking thing!  Centuries ago, when God began to prepare a people from whom he would send a savior, he chose Abraham and Sara, two childless senior citizens ready for the grave!  After choosing this people as "his" people, they end up enslaved in a foreign country.  Even when they are led out of slavery, God picks a man with a speech impediment to lead them. Even his messengers, the prophets, were, more often than not, hesitant, even whiny, sometimes. One had a dirty mouth. One tried to beg off as being too young and inexperienced. Another tried to run and had to be swallowed and spit out on the beach and told to go Nineveh. Their most famous and beloved king, David, was a murderous bigamist!  Even when the birth of the Savior of the world came, he was born not from among the rich and educated, not at a state-of-the-arts birthing center with the best of doctors, but in a barn, to an unknown teen-ager, pregnant before marriage, away from home, after riding for miles on donkey back! God just keeps going and going!  Even before Jesus’ birth, Mary predicted that God’s ways would not be our ways. “The rich will be pulled from their thrones and the poor will be lifted up from their manure heaps.”

Again, in his ministry, we see that God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus was a layman, not a clergyman. He was kicked out of the synagogue, rejected and hounded by the religious establishment. His closest companions were a personnel department’s nightmare: a hated tax collector, a liar, two mama’s babies, an agnostic, a former terrorist, and a petty thief, to name a few!  His closest friends were a motley collection of marginal types: prostitutes, lepers, the un-churched, women and children, the dirt poor, the least, the lost and the losers. The gossip about him was that he “welcomed sinners and ate with them,” helping him earn the nick names of “glutton and drunkard.”  That’s certainly not what most people expect of God! Even his final “big entry” into Jerusalem was not in a gleaming chariot with white horses or on a golden throne carried by slaves. No, he deliberately makes his big entery riding on the back of a jackass!

No wonder most people missed this king. They were looking in the wrong direction. They thought they knew how God would act. They thought he would act as they would act.  As one preacher put it years ago, “In the beginning, God created us in his own image and likeness and ever since we have been trying to create God in our own image and likeness!” Instead of thinking as God thinks, we try to make God think the way we think. No wonder we experience God as absent, more than present, in our lives! We keep trying to make God reasonable, we keep looking for God among the rich, the beautiful, the self-righteous and the powerful!  No wonder Christianity is dead in countries where power, prestige and money are prized, but alive and well and growing in countries where the poor, the powerless and the suffering live. The latter understand how God thinks!  The former is still trying to get God to think as they think! The rich and powerful and beautiful and so-called smart people think they can do without God. The poor and powerless know that they need God! 

One the most common ways we do not think as God thinks is when we think that God is absent when things go wrong and present only when things go right.  Looking back over my own life, I can say with confidence that it was during those times that God seemed most absent is when God was actually most active! I could not see it at the time, but it is crystal clear from hindsight! (1) As I look back over my life, especially over a very painful childhood lived out in an atmosphere of almost daily psychological abuse, I am amazed at my own survival. It was painful and I would not want to go through it again, but I have come to realize that God was certainly using it to prepare me for helping hundreds of others as a priest, especially the marginalized, the rejected and left-out.  I can say with certainty that that experience, and the triumph over it, has helped my effectiveness as a priest in helping them more than any other thing! (2) When I was sent to the home missions right after ordination, I certainly felt at the time that God seemed to have abandoned me. In reality, looking back, God was extremely active at that time in my life. God was preparing me for my life’s work as a preacher, as a "revitalizer" of parishes and as a person sensitive to religious prejudice. Looking back, I have realized over and over again, that that period of my life was preparing me for what I have been doing ever since!

On this Feast of Christ the King, a feast in honor of the king that is the reverse of how we think of kings, we are challenged to think differently about God. It’s message is simple: God’s ways are not our ways, it is precisely when we feel God most absent, is when God is most present! So I say to all of you who have things going on in your life that you don’t like, things that make you feel that God is absent, just wait! Trust God! I believe that you will someday realize that, even in times of loss and tragedy, God is very active.  Scriptures tell the story in a million ways: God’s ways are not our ways! Contrary to popular opinion, breakdown is a sure sign of a breakthrough, there is a crown on the other side of every cross, resurrection on the other side of death!   That heart attack may just wake you up to what’s really important! That relationship breakup may be the best thing that ever happened to you! That firing may just take you to the best job you ever had! That unexpected death may bring you closer to others!  Ugly ducklings today may just turn out to be swans tomorrow! Getting what you want may turn out to be your worst nightmare! That child that disappointed you most may just turn out to be the child that makes you most proud! That feeling of God being absent, may be the beginning of feeling closer to God than ever! Never ever underestimate the value of a so-called tragedy!  God’s ways are not our ways!