- Associated Press - Thursday, August 4, 2016

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - When the Rev. Augustus Tolton returned to Quincy on July 17, 1886, after his ordination in Rome, hundreds of Quincyans welcomed home the country’s first recognized black priest with open arms.

On July 17, exactly 130 years after Tolton’s celebrated homecoming, a much smaller — but no less reverent — crowd marked the anniversary with prayer and a procession to St. Peter Catholic Cemetery, where Tolton has been buried for almost 120 years.

The Rev. Daren Zehnle, a Quincy native who now serves the St. Agnes Parish in Springfield, Illinois, hosted Sunday’s observance, which allowed about two dozen devotees to show their appreciation for Tolton’s work during his time in Quincy.

“Father Tolton was very well loved and respected here in Quincy because of his preaching, because of his singing,” he said. “People thought he was a fantastic man by all accounts.”

Tolton, who died in Chicago in 1897 at the age of 43, grew up in Quincy after his mother and siblings escaped from slavery in Missouri to the free state of Illinois. He attended St. Peter School as a child before pursuing studies at St. Francis College, now known as Quincy University, and the Urban College in Rome.

Though Tolton encountered racism and prejudice during his studies, Zehnle said he faced it “quietly, humbly and with great love.”

“Father Tolton’s willingness to endure the suffering in union with Christ is a great example for us,” Zehnle said. “And even now, as racial tensions are stringing back up again, the witness of Father Tolton’s life says that we can work, live and get on together quite well.”

More than 20 people gathered at the statue of Tolton in front of St. Peter School on Sunday evening. After a brief prayer, the group, led by Zehnle and a half-dozen servants, walked in high heat to Tolton’s grave for more prayer and singing of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” Tolton’s favorite hymn.

Stephanie Rankin, who walked in the procession, called Tolton’s story “inspiring.” She added she hopes Tolton will become canonized, a process that began six years ago. Tolton is now recognized as a Servant of God.

“I think that would be beautiful,” she said. “I think he’d be a wonderful saint for our time.”

Donna Moore, an employee of the Diocese of Springfield, agreed, calling him a “role model.” She also pointed to his strong connection to Quincy.

“Quincy was very near and dear to his heart,” she said. “We need to continue to embrace him as a brother in this city.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://bit.ly/29JnO5k

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com

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