When more than a hundred students clad in purple uniforms sitting in the hot Nigerian sun heard their American speaker tell the story about a black American who became a priest, it might have been the first time they had heard such a story.
Sitting in neat rows of plastic chairs in the school’s courtyard, students of the Bethrand Okonkwo Memorial Comprehensive Academy listened intently about how Fr. Augustus Tolton, a runaway slave, became ordained in 1886.
“In 1870 there were 18 Catholic seminaries in the United States, but not one would accept Augustus as a seminarian at that time,” explained Nick Costello, visiting from Chicago and clothed in a bright orange collarless African shirt. “Everybody who knew Augustus knew he had a vocation to be a priest. So they made an appeal to Rome, to the Vatican.”
Venerable John Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri in 1854. He escaped slavery with his family during the Civil War by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, and arriving in Quincy. Augustus, age 10, worked in a tobacco factory along with his brother.
Fr. Tolton Named Venerable
Pope Francis set Fr. Tolton on the way to canonization when he recognized his heroic virtue June 12, making him “venerable” within the Church. Catholics are now authorized to pray directly to him as an intercessor before God.
While Nick spoke, the children grasped a holy card of Fr. Tolton handed out by their speaker. Nick, who is president of the school’s sponsoring organization, the Chicago-based Home to Enhance African Life (HEAL), explained to the children that he was told to share something about America with them.
“We’ve been trying to find a way to bring you something from the United States,” he said. “Something to teach you that will help your education .… something that is American, but that also applies to your lives here.”
The students certainly appreciated their visitor. When he arrived, they performed elaborate dances and put on plays for him.
Slaves Taken from Western Africa
Between 1650 and 1900, about 15% of the 10.24 million, or 1.5 million, enslaved Africans taken to the Americas came from the Bight of Biafra area, which included coastal Nigeria, according to Wikipedia.
The school, which serves about three hundred students, is one of the ministries of HEAL. The nonprofit also helps widows and orphans in southern Nigeria with a residence and other services.
The Nigerian ministry was founded in the mid-1990s by Deacon Leo Okonkwo, of Nigeria, its current leader. Deacon Leo also founded a religious community called the Messengers of Justice (MOJ), who model their lives on Jesus Christ in service of the poor and marginalized orphans and widows.
Interest in Fr. Tolton has increased in the last two years, as measured by Google searches. An elementary school in Chicago is named after him. His life can be studied in a special section of the website of the Archdiocese of Chicago. There is also information on his Wikipedia page.
Special thanks to Bishop Joseph N. Perry, Postulator for the Cause of Augustus Tolton, for providing material on him. Used as a reference for Fr. Tolton’s life is the book, Augustus Tolton - The Church Is the True Liberator, by Joyce Duriga and published by Liturgical Press.
About Home to Enhance African Life
HEAL’s mission is to form servant leaders among West Africans through education, entrepreneurship, and poverty relief in the Self-Emptying Spirit of Christ (cf. Phil 2:6-11). HEAL was founded in 2013 and received tax-exempt status in 2014. To receive a free prayer card and help educate and form this missions’ children, donate to HEAL at HEALnigeria.org/donate.