Exploring the Varied Racial Realities of Chicago Catholicism

In the Catholic Church, the nineteenth-century priest Augustus Tolton is considered by many to be a likely candidate for the title of “First African American Saint.” Born into slavery in 1854, Tolton was the first Black priest ever ordained in the United States, and he spent much of his priestly life serving Black Catholics on the South Side of Chicago.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on Tolton’s canonization cause, but that same attention has not extended to the Black Catholic parishes where Tolton once served. Even as Tolton was elevated by Pope Francis last year to the rank of “venerable”—a key title two steps away from official sainthood—predominantly Black parishes on the South Side have faced dwindling budgets and a near-constant threat of closure and consolidation.

In the words of Vanessa White, a scholar of Black Catholicism, “the institutional church is turning its back on the Black community.” This project delves into that betrayal. At a moment when the entire country is reckoning with its treatment of Black Americans, this project examines what some see as the systemic disregard of the American Catholic Church for its Black members—a disregard made all the more egregious by the Church’s simultaneous elevation of a historic Black figure as an important model of holiness.

This project took on additional significance in the fall of 2020, when Chicago native Archbishop Wilton Gregory was nominated and appointed as the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church.

Black, Catholic, and Conflicted

To be Black and Catholic in Chicago is to live in contradiction, knowing that the same church lionizing local Black heroes may soon close your parish doors.