Pope Francis
Father Augustine Tolton (Public Domain Image)

Pope Francis on Wednesday placed the late Father Augustine Tolton, the first Black priest and a former slave, on the path to sainthood.

The pope’s decision comes at the end of a five-year investigation in Chicago. In moving Tolton forward toward sainthood, the pontiff approved a decree that recognizes Tolton’s “heroic virtues,” Reuters is reporting. The decree is the first of many steps in the path toward naming Tolton a saint.

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Tolton was born in Bush Creek, Mo., in 1854 into a Black family of slaves owned by a white Roman Catholic family. Tolton’s father escaped slavery by serving with the Union Army during the Civil War, Reuters reports. Tolton and the rest of his family gained their freedom by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, which was a free state.

People who tutored Tolton saw early on that he was smart, but no seminary in the United States would accept him. As a result, he traveled to Rome to study for the priesthood.

In 1884, Tolton was ordained, becoming the first Black American Catholic priest. After his ordination, he returned home to Missouri to serve in Black parishes around the state. He died in 1897, Reuters reports.

Pope Francis on Wednesday granted Tolton the official title of “Venerable,” which means that Catholics can now pray to him for God to intercede on their lives.

As for the road to sainthood, at least two miracles would need to be attributed to the late priest.

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The Catholic faith teaches that only God can perform miracles but that saints who are aligned with God in heaven can intercede on behalf of people who pray to them, according to Reuters. A miracle is typically defined as the inexplicable healing of someone suffering from a physical ailment.

The campaign toward making Tolton a saint was launched in March 2010 by Cardinal Francis George, former archbishop of Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reports.