The following comes from a March 16 Valley Catholic article by Liz Sullivan:

He was born nine years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. He walked and rowed a boat to his freedom as a young child. Every place he reached out to in the United States in the hopes of becoming a priest said, “NO.”

Yet his faith never wavered; his commitment never broken.

On Easter Sunday, 1886, Augustus Tolton became the first African-American Roman Catholic priest when he was ordained in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.

Now, almost 119 years after his death a movement is gaining strength across the country to canonize him as the first African-American saint.

In the Diocese of San Jose, there is a group of about 15 parishioners at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph, who have joined forces for the cause.

“He is a great example of a person of faith,” said Merylee Shelton.

Tolton was given the title Servant of God on February 24, 2011, when it was announced that the church officially began the formal introduction of his cause for sainthood.

Born in 1854 in Missouri, which was then a slave state, Tolton was baptized and raised Catholic. When he was seven years old, his mother, along with him and his brother and sister, decided to escape slavery and went to the city of Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state. It was a 41-mile trip and it involved a lot of walking and riding in a rickety rowboat, but they made their way to freedom.

As a child growing up free, Tolton spent half his time working in a tobacco factory and half his time going to Catholic school. He was a devout boy, who became a devout young man. As he approached his teens, Tolton decided he wanted to become a priest. When no seminary or religious order in the United States would accept him because of his race, the priests in Quincy decided to start his education in town.

Five years later, Tolton was accepted by the Franciscans at Saint Francis College (now Quincy University). After a couple of years Tolton was accepted into the seminary in Rome. Then six years later, at the age of 31, Tolton was ordained a priest. He thought he would travel to Africa and serve, but he was instructed to return to the United States and serve the African-American community.

In Chicago, Tolton led a mission society, Saint Augustine’s, and he led the development and administration of the African-American “national parish” of Saint Monica’s. The church grew to have 600 parishioners.

In 1893, at the age of 39 Tolton began to be plagued by “spells of illness.” At the age of 43, Tolton collapsed and died as a result of a heatwave.