Pope Francis has positioned the Rev. Augustine Tolton, namesake of Columbia's Catholic high school, for sainthood.

Tolton was a former slave and the first known black Roman Catholic priest in America.

The pontiff on Wednesday declared Tolton, of Quincy, to be "venerable." The Diocese of Springfield announced that the designation means that Tolton lived a life of "heroic virtue."

Tolton Catholic High School, which opened in 2011, was named for the priest, sometimes called Augustus Tolton.

"The Tolton Catholic community was elated at the news this morning," school spokesman Joe Bradley wrote in an email. "Our student body has been praying a special prayer for Father Tolton's canonization during the spring semester. We also held an all-school mass on April 24 in honor of the anniversary of Father Tolton's ordination to the priesthood. Father Tolton lived his life as a true trailblazer and we are thrilled that the canonization process has presented an opportunity for more people to learn about him. We look forward to tracking the progress of this cause as it moves forward and  continue to pray for its success."

Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri in 1854. He, his mother and two siblings escaped to freedom across the Mississippi River in 1862 with Confederate soldiers firing on them.

Tolton studied for the priesthood in Rome because no American seminary would accept a black man. But upon his ordination at age 31, he was returned to his home in Quincy, a Mississippi River city about 110 miles northwest of St. Louis. He later moved to Chicago and ministered to the poor.

Church officials are investigating possible miracles attributed to Tolton which could lead to his canonization. The sainthood effort began in 2010.

Tolton died in 1897 at age 43.