Monday, November 4, 2002

Bishop Gregory dedicates statue of first Black priest in US

With a solemn prayer and a few sprinkles of holy water, Belleville Bishop Wilton D. Gregory dedicated a statue of Augustine Tolton, the first black American Catholic priest, outside St. Patrick Catholic Church in East St. Louis on Sunday.

The six-foot concrete likeness was the product of an informal pitch to the Rev. J. Clyde Grogan by the artists, Gene and Patricia Jantzen. Gene Jantzen, 86, a former professional bodybuilder from Bartelso, recalled coming across an article on Tolton in a 1991 issue of the Catholic weekly called Our Sunday Visitor. He found the tale inspiring and thought Grogan's parishioners might, too. With a solemn prayer and a few sprinkles of holy water, Belleville Bishop Wilton D. Gregory dedicated a statue of Augustine Tolton, the first black American Catholic priest, outside St. Patrick Catholic Church in East St. Louis on Sunday.

The short version of that story goes like this: Tolton, who was born near Hannibal, Mo., in 1854 to slave parents, escaped with his mother to free territory in Illinois in 1861. He threw himself into religious studies and, when no seminary in the United States would take him, made his way to Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1886. He said his first Mass at St. Peter's Basilica before returning home to lead black parishes in Quincy, Ill., and in Chicago, where he died in 1897.

"When I saw this article," Jantzen said, "I got real interested in it because, first of all, I'm very hipped on doing everything I can to cut out bigotry of any kind. Father Grogan, the pastor of St. Patrick, was a friend of mine. I said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a statue of the first black priest to ever serve in this country?'"

Grogan said it would, and the Jantzens got to work. The statue took them about two years to complete. A fire last year wiped out both the Jantzens' art studio and a partially completed statue, forcing them to start over from scratch. The work was painstakingly slow, Jantzen said, because he could find just three faded photographs of Tolton to work from.

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