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    Knight Leads Pilgrimage in Honor of 1st Black Priest in U.S.

    Nearly 145 pilgrims joined Father Zehnle to bring prayers of national unity to Venerable Augustus Tolton

    By Andrew Fowler 8/3/2020
    Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized U.S. diocesan priest of African descent, is pictured in an undated photo. Pope Francis advanced his sainthood June 11 by recognizing that he lived a life of heroic virtue. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)

    Father Daren Zehnle is leading devotion to Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first U.S diocesan priest of African descent, following the Knights of Columbus’ call for prayers for national unity and an end to racism.

    Father Zehnle, the Knights of Columbus chaplain for Sangamon Valley Council 5754 in Petersburg, Ill., grew up in nearby Quincy, where Father Tolton is buried. He admired the priest for his ability of drawing people together, no matter their race.

    “There is something about the story about Father Tolton’s life where anyone who comes into contact with his story, just for a brief moment, is drawn to him just by the witness he gave for us all,” Father Zehnle said.

    Father Zehnle says he saw injustice with George Floyd’s death, which has sparked civil unrest and protests. As the Knights of Columbus responded to the unrest by calling for a Novena for National Unity & An End to Racism, Father Zehnle decided to offer his prayers at the gravesite of Venerable Father Tolton.

    “That witness, recognizing each other as friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, we see that in his life,” Father Zehnle said. “There is a lot that we can learn from Father Tolton in simply treating each other as human beings.”

    Nearly 145 people joined Father Zehnle in his mile-long pilgrimage from St. Peter School to St. Peter’s Cemetery. It was the fourth year that Father Zehle conducted such a pilgrimage. 

    Father Zehnle began these pilgrimages after he returned from his studies in Rome. While living in Europe, he made pilgrimages throughout Europe to shrines to commemorate saints’ feast days and holy days. He brought that zeal back to the U.S. and solidified his own devotion to Father Tolton.

    The first pilgrimage had 30 attendees and was well-received, so Father Zehnle decided to do it again the following year. The third pilgrimage, which coincided with Pope Francis declaring Father Tolton as Venerable, saw more than 150 people take part.

    Father Zehnle hopes that Venerable Tolton will one day be canonized a saint, a desire that stems from an admiration of Tolton’s holiness.

    “What I’ve always told people is that we’re not trying to have Father Tolton canonized because he was the first Black priest in the country. That’s an important part of his life, to be sure, but that’s not the foundation for the canonization process,” Father Zehnle said. “What we know in Father Tolton is a priest who lived a holy life and that’s the cause of canonization. That’s what we’re trying to exemplify.”

    Father Zehnle hopes to expand the pilgrimage next year, welcoming more Catholics, including Knights of Columbus, from across the state.

    Share your story of how your council is helping strengthen people’s faith and offering support during this time. Email

    Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s archives, click here.



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