A coalition of Catholic organizations will soon host a series of webinars leading up to a pilgrimage walking the footsteps of Venerable Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first openly Black Catholic priest.
“Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation” is being sponsored by several institutions housed at the University of Notre Dame, alongside a nearby Black parish, St. Augustine Catholic Church, and Modern Catholic Pilgrim.
The four online events, to be held over the next two months, will cover a wide range of topics—including sacred art, justice work, and the confluence of pro-Black themes and Christian pilgrimage.
“The Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation will investigate pilgrimage practices of hospitality and cross-cultural encounter from the deep past to the present day,” the event description reads.
The culminating event, a one-day journey in Chicago, will take place on April 1 and feature a trip to the Tolton Spirituality Center, a new outfit created to promote the legacy of the Black saint-to-be.
The date coincides with the 169th anniversary of Tolton’s birth in Ralls County, Missouri, where he was enslaved with his family until the Civil War. He was educated in Catholic schools and commenced priesthood studies in Rome, as US Catholic seminaries did not then accept Black men.
Ordained at the Lateran Basilica in April 1886, Tolton was later sent home to Quincy, Illinois to minister, before transferring to Chicago after various experiences of racism in his home diocese. He died of heatstroke in 1897 at the age of 43. The Archdiocese of Chicago opened his sainthood cause in 2010.
“The cause for Father Tolton’s canonization–and the other African-American candidates for sainthood–is a matter of racial justice in the Catholic Church,” said Sr Annie Killian, a Dominican Sister of Peace and Public Humanities Fellow at UND’s Medieval Institute.
“When we recognize their sanctity, we uplift the sacred dignity of Black lives.”
Killian and LaRyssa Herrington, a Black Catholic doctoral student in theology at UND, are organizing the Healing and Liberation series. Both are parishioners at St. Augustine and desired to bridge the gap between the university and the wider South Bend community.
“We saw an opportunity to bridge a gap between these two groups, and thought it best to engage scholar-activists at both an intellectual level (through a series of webinars which explore the history of pilgrimage and themes of race and justice), and a practical level by inviting people to participate in an actual pilgrimage,” Herrington told BCM.
“We hope that this becomes the first in a series of efforts made by the university and the larger Catholic community of South Bend and beyond to begin thinking about the ways aesthetic practices like prayer can come into contact with active movements for change.”
The series’ first webinar, on the history of pilgrimage among various faiths in the Middle Ages, will take place over Zoom on Friday, January 27, at 12pm ET. Speakers will include UND theology professors Robin Jensen and Mun’im Sirry, as well as Alexander Hsu from the Keough School of Global Affairs.