Updated 02/24/11 – 5:25 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago’s first African-American priest could be on his way to becoming a saint.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports

The Rev. Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in Brush Creek, Mo., in 1854. His given name was John Augustine Tolton.

As CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez reports, Chicago’s highest ranking black Catholic, Bishop Rev. Joseph Perry, is leading the effort to canonize Tolton.

“We see him as the first link of a long chain,” Perry said.

Tolton, Chicago’s first black priest, helped found the city’s first black Catholic church — St. Monica Church — on the South Side. That church has since merged with St. Elizabeth.

Perry said Tolton was a remarkable young man who survived a dark chapter in our nation’s history, having been born a slave.

“’Don’t look in my eyes boy’ was a phrase that was frequently articulated, which translated to a diminishment of the individual, making them a non-person,” Perry said. “He grew in that kind of a context.”

After Tolton’s father, an escaped slave, joined the Union Army during the Civil War, Tolton’s mother took him and his two siblings to the Mississippi River, and crossed over to freedom on the Illinois side, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church tells us.

Soon afterward, the Rev. Peter McGirr of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downstate Quincy noticed the young Tolton standing outside his church. Father McGirr took Tolton in and baptized him as a Roman Catholic as he entered St. Peter’s Catholic School.

Tolton went on to graduate from Quincy College, and Father McGirr arranged for him to complete his ecclesiastical studies in Rome. Tolton was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome in 1886, according to St. Elizabeth Church.

A few years later, Tolton came to Chicago, where he held basement services for a congregation of about 30 African-American Roman Catholics who were part of a club called the St. Augustine Society. Tolton became an instant sensation.

In 1891, the St. Augustine Society was given permission to build St. Monica Church at 36th and Dearborn Streets. Tolton helped found the church, which opened in 1893, and the congregation grew quickly, according to St. Elizabeth.

Tolton remained in service at St. Monica, until he was overcome by the 105-degree heat while returning from a priests’ retreat at St. Viator’s College in Bourbonnais. He collapsed on Calumet Avenue as he was walking from a train station back to his rectory, and died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy, the church said.

Some said they feel his consideration for sainthood is just as sensational as Tolton was.

“In many ways this will re-energize the black Catholic community in Chicago and also the broader church,” said Dr. C. Vanessa White, professor of spirituality for the Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union.

White said Tolton represents holiness, perseverance and reconciliation – all messages that still translate today.

Mary Norfleet Johnson, director of the Office for Black Catholics said, “For me as a black Catholic, Father Tolton is African American, American-born. He was a slave. All the struggles that he went through, and he remained a Catholic. … It is very emotional.”

At a midday prayer service at the Quigley Center in Chicago, a decree was read in Tolton’s honor and papers were signed in advocacy of sainthood for Father Tolton.

There are many more steps until Tolton can be canonized, but everyone involved in the effort said they were more than ready to take up the cause.

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