QUINCY -- Due in part to the to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Rev. Daren Zehnle feels it is difficult to forecast what kind of turnout to expect Thursday night.
That's when the 123rd anniversary of the death of the Rev. Augustine Tolton, a one-time Quincy resident, will be commemorated with a pilgrimage procession.
Tolton is recognized as the first Black priest in the United States and his Cause for the beatification and canonization of sainthood is underway in Rome. He died at age 43 in 1897.
"It's hard to guess, really," said Zehnle, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield and one of the event coordinators. "This will be fourth year we've had a pilgrimage procession like this. The first two years we had about 30 people each time; last year we had upwards of 150 people, but that was also only a few weeks after Pope Francis declared Father Tolton to be Venerable on June 12, 2019."
Zehnle, who pastors St. Augustine Parish in Ashland, said the mile-long pilgrimage procession will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the statue of Father Tolton outside St. Peter Catholic School at 2500 Maine.
After a few words of welcome and explanation, followed by a prayer, the pilgrimage procession will advance along the south side of Maine, where it will eventually cross on to the east side of South 33rd Street. It will then move along the east side of South 33rd until it reaches St. Peter Catholic Cemetery, where Tolton is buried.
"Upon entering the cemetery, the procession will stop at the grave of Tolton for the celebration of evening prayer at 7, which is composed of Psalms, a reading from Scripture, a homily and petitions," Zehnle said.
Father Peter Chineke, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, will deliver a sermon.
Zehnle said that among the items that will be prayed for is an end to racism. The procession will conclude with the singing of "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," which was Tolton's favorite hymn.
Those who wish to participate in the evening prayer but cannot walk in the procession are invited to park near the cemetery to meet the procession at the grave. Due to the small size of the cemetery, Zehnle is requesting no parking in the cemetery itself.
Chairs and bottled water will be provided at the cemetery for those who wish to participate in the evening prayer. Social distancing procedures will be maintained.
"We will be following the guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health as best we can," Zehnle said. "Those who do not live in the same house will be asked to keep a distance of six feet from each other. Chairs will be set up at the cemetery to help ensure this distance."
Zehnle said when those gathered sing "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" at the end of evening prayer, attendees will be asked to spread out to keep 10 feet from each other while we sing.
Zehnle said he has no idea concerning how much longer in may take for Tolton to reach sainthood.
"It's difficult to say, really," he said. "We are still awaiting the approval of a miraculous healing attributable to Father Tolton's intercession. Once the Holy Father approves such a miracle, Father Tolton will be named a Blessed.
"After that moment, the search will begin for a second healing, after which he would be named a saint. It could be months, or it could be years. We leave it to God, but ask him to bring it about sooner than later."
Zehnle said the nation is in need of the example set by Tolton set during his relatively brief time on earth.
"Given the great unrest happening across the nation right now, we would all do well to look to Father Tolton's example to learn how to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus," Zehnle said. "Father Tolton sought to bring people together to join in the worship of God as one family; we should all join in that work today."