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$1M Lily Grant will fund Tolton Center in Chicago

A new resource will help Chicago parishes and promote the only African-American priest on the road to sainthood, but the details and vision are murky.

A new program in one of the few dioceses with a Black Catholic bishop will reportedly help local Catholics understand Black and Catholic culture—and indirectly help advance the cause of the only African-American priest on the road to sainthood.

The Tolton Spirituality Center, an initiative under the auspices of St Thomas the Apostle Church in Chicago (which submitted for and was awarded the grant), will be funded annually at $200,000 for 5 years by the Lily Endowment's Thriving Congregations Initiative.

St Ambrose parish (which may soon be merging with St Thomas) is also helping with the project, according to a press release from the Chicago archdiocese.

The center will be "a vehicle through which [Chicago's] congregations will... reimagine what it means to be African American and Catholic in the 21st century," according to an archdiocesan spokesperson.

“The plan is to develop and deliver educational programs on topics of interest to the African American Catholic community in Chicago, including relevant social and cultural trends, principles of faith-based community organizing, and especially Tolton’s spirituality."

An organization by the same name hosted an event promoting the cause of Venerable Fr Augustus Tolton, the center's namesake, in mid-November, but is unclear if the two entities are one and the same.

The aforementioned Black bishop, Joseph Perry, is the postulator for the cause and appeared at the event in question.

He also spoke to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday about the center, noting that St Thomas "thought they would take a chance and apply to see if a program for our churches here in Chicago, based on the ministry of the first African American priest, Father Augustus Tolton, might be something they would be interested in."

Despite this quote, the resulting Tribune headline, and the archdiocesan press release, Venerable Fr Tolton was not the first African-American priest.

That honor goes to Fr James Augustine Healy, a White-passing priest ordained over three decades before Tolton. And as two other Healy brothers became priests shortly thereafter, Tolton was in fact the fourth such Black Catholic in America.

It is not clear what role Perry—who has repeatedly spoken out against Black (and otherwise ethnic) parishes in recent days—will play in the center itself, and the Lily Grant is separate from the cause he is overseeing.

St Thomas the Apostle is not listed on the USCCB's aggregation of Black Catholic parishes, and its school, despite a predominantly Black student population, was recently in the news for its lack of Black teachers.

Moreover, while the press release states that the center will function in part as a "community hub", the Tribune reports that the center will be unhoused.

Somewhat vaguely, the archdiocese told the Tribune it will instead operate as a clearinghouse "that will aid the participating congregations to thrive and experience healthy growth and advancement."

It's safe to assume that we'll hear more from Perry, the chairman of the USCCB's Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, in the near future.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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