The namesake of Columbia's Tolton Catholic High School is one step closer to sainthood.

Augustus Tolton was the first black priest in the United States and on Feb. 5, the theological consultants of the Congregation of Causes of the Saints voted to bestow upon him the Decree of Heroic Virtues, according to a news release from the Archdiocese of Chicago. A Decree of Heroic Virtues is recognition of a life of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

The nine-member theological commission presented its finding to the Ordinary Meeting of Cardinals and Archbishops, where a final vote will be taken before presenting the decree to Pope Francis for his approval, the release stated. The decree would give the Tolton the title "venerable" After a miracle through the intercession of Tolton has been confirmed, he will be declared "blessed" for canonization and a second miracle may be required to complete his official recognition as a saint.

Tolton was born a slave in the Brush Creek community in northeast Missouri. His father joined the Union Army during the Civil War and his mother escaped with him and his siblings to Quincy, Illinois. He studied for the priesthood in Rome because no seminary in the United States would accept a black man. After earning his priesthood, he was assigned to a black Catholic church in Quincy during his first three years. He came to Chicago in 1889, starting St. Monica Parish. He died of a heat stroke in 1897 at age 43.

"I think it's more magnificent than anything we can imagine," said Mike Coleman, Tolton Catholic High School chaplain and associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish. "It will be a great day for our school and a great day for the church when Father Tolton becomes a saint."

"We're very proud to be his namesake school," Coleman said.  "He's an incredible man and we're blessed to have him as our patron saint."

Coleman quickly corrected himself.

"I guess I should say our patron," he said.

Dan Joyce, the school's president, said the school is waiting for Tolton to be declared "venerable" and then for miracles ascribed to him to be investigated.

"We're very excited about the news we got from the Vatican" about the advancement of the cause, Joyce said. "It can be a long path sometimes. We hope he's an exception."

Joyce said the recognition of Tolton is appropriate for someone who came from slavery to become a priest during a difficult time in American history.

The sainthood effort began in 2010. From the Chicago archdiocese, permission was granted in 2016 to open Tolton's grave for canonical recognition of his remains. Six historical Vatican consultants ruled unanimously on March 8, 2018, in favor of the Tolton "Positio" a position paper on the candidate's life and virtues.

Tolton Catholic High School opened in 2011.

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com

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