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Father Tolton's remains exhumed, verified; his cause takes step forward


  • Funeral director P.J. Staab and Father Christopher House, chancellor of the Diocese of Springfield , Ill., place vestments on the remains Father Augustus Tolton Dec. 10 as they are exhumed and verified at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
  • A crucifix is displayed near the grave of Father Augustus Tolton Dec. 10 as his remains are exhumed and verified at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
  • A skull is uncovered in the grave of Father Augustus Tolton Dec. 10 as his remains are exhumed and verified at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
  • Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, postulator for the sainthood cause of Father Augustus Tolton, foreground, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., back right, seal the new casket bearing the remains of Father Tolton after they were exhumed and verified Dec. 10 at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
  • Crews erect white tents over the burial site of Father Augustus Tolton in preparation for his remains to be exhumed and verified Dec. 10 at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
  • Medical examiner Nathaniel Patterson, forensic anthropologist Mark Johnsey and archaeologist Deacon David Keene remove soil from the grave of Father Augustus Tolton Dec. 10 as his remains are exhumed and verified at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. Father Tolton, a sainthood candidate, was a former slave who died in Chicago in 1897. He is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

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QUINCY, Ill. (CNS) -- On the morning of Dec. 10 in a cemetery in Quincy, Father Augustus Tolton's cause for canonization took one step further as his remains were exhumed and verified.

Father Tolton, a former slave, is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. In 2011, the Archdiocese of Chicago officially opened his cause for sainthood.

While digging up Father Tolton's grave may seem like a macabre undertaking and the antithesis of the prayer "may they rest in peace," it is actually a reverent and well thought out part of church law regarding the remains of holy people.

"This goes back to a very ancient tradition in the church for a number of reasons. One was to document that the person really existed and wasn't a figment of someone's imagination or some group's imagination. Finding their grave was the telltale sign that the person lived, breathed and walked this earth," said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, who is postulator of the priest's cause and one of the nation's African-American Catholic bishops.

"It's basically out of our theology, our tradition that our bodies are made holy in baptism and the reception of the Eucharist and eventually they rise to glory. So while we're treating everyone with dignity in life, even their remains are to be given a kind of a reverential handling," said Bishop Perry.

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