Augustus Tolton was born of the marriage union of Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton in Ralls County, Missouri on April 1, 1854. He had one older brother, Charles, and two younger sisters, Cordella and Anna. These children were all born into the same slavery to which their parents were subjected.
Peter Paul Tolton, in looking at his condition, could see nothing but the abuse
of his people. He has his family were subject to the rules of another man’s life. As the Civil War began in 1861, Peter escaped slavery and joined the Union Army to fight for his family’s freedom. Tragically, he was among the 180,000 other Black men who were killed during that war. He died in St. Louis Hospital.
Martha Tolton, a strong and courageous woman, fulfilled her husband’s long quest for freedom. She gathered her children and walked to freedom by crossing the Mississippi River. Reaching safety, she spoke to her children, “Now you are! Never forget the goodness of the Lord!” Augustus was seven years old when he and his family reached Quincy, Illinois. He remembered his mother’s counsel, and never did forget the goodness of the Lord.
Prior to their escape, the slave owners of the Tolton family (the Elliots) had all their slaves baptized; so upon reaching Illinois, the family became members of the Roman Catholic Church. They continued to practice their faith after becoming free. Augustus was enrolled in Catholic School for a time, but had to withdraw because of the racial prejudice of the parishioners who protested the presence of a “Negro” in the school. Some of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who staffed St. Boniface School tutored Augustus until he got enrolled in St. Peter’s School, where he was allowed to attend classes.
As he grew, Augustus began to desire to serve the Lord more deeply by becoming a priest. However, at that time, the American Catholic Church did not allow black men to be admitted to studies in United States seminaries. Request to have Augustus admitted to an American seminary fell on deaf ears. His parish priests, disheartened by the prejudice of those in charge of seminaries, began to tutor Augustus themselves.
In 1878, he was admitted to Franciscan College at Quincy, Illinois as a special student. However the two parish priests (Frs. McGuirr and Richardt) continued their efforts to get him into a seminary. In 1880, they were successful, and Augustus left for the Propaganda College in Rome to prepare for priesthood. For a time, Augustus thought that he would be sent to Africa to serve as a missionary after ordination; but Cardinal Giovanni Simeon thought it best that he return to his home country and diocese of Alton, Illinois. The Cardinal said “America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation, we will see now whether it deserves the honor. If the United States has never seen a Black priest, it must see one now. Can you drink from this cup?” Despite knowing well the resistance he would surely face upon returning, Augustus answered the call, “I can drink of the cup of the Lord!”
Fr. Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886, as the first known and recognized Black priest in the United States of America. Returning to the United States, he ministered for two years as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Quincy, Illinois. He quickly gained a reputation as a fine preacher, so much so that many of the German and Irish Catholics began to attend Mass with the Black Catholics! He was most attentive to the spiritual and human needs of his people. Soon his Masses and instruction classes gained prominence, and he was asked to attend and speak at many public gatherings. His increasing popularity unleashed both hidden racism and the jealousy of both Catholic and non-Catholic ministers in the area. His enemies referred to his church as “that nigger church”, and to him as ‘the nigger priest”.
The extent of the persecution Fr. Tolton received especially from the other Catholic pastor in Quincy (Fr. Weiss) led to his transfer from Quincy to Chicago. Then Chicago Archbishop Feegan thought this gifted young black man would have a powerful impact in the Chicago diocese. Upon arriving there, Tolton ministered in a South side church basement that was known as St. Augustine’s, and later became St. Monica’s Church. Parishioners eventually found him an apartment at 448 East 36th Street, and his mother and sister moved in with Fr. Tolton, who had been given jurisdiction of all Blacks in Chicago, and had become the first Black pastor in Chicago. Although the formal church building was never totally completed, the parish continued to gather at the small chapel on 36th and Dearborn Streets for Mass and other assemblies. St. Monica’s became the center of Black Catholic life for more than 30 years.
Augustus Tolton continued to be well known in Chicago and the United States. He spoke at numerous gatherings and lectures, including the 1st Catholic Colored Congress in Washington DC in 1889. Catholics in Boston and New York heard him speak, and he preached at places like the Cathedral in Galveston, Texas and many others. Papers throughout the country played up Fr. Tolton’s unique role as the only full blooded Black priest in the American Catholic Church. Augustus was proud of his Blackness, and extremely devoted to his people.
Perhaps it was because he was so devoted and hard-working that his life was cut short far too early. In July 1897, he journeyed with other Diocesan priests to make a retreat, returning on an excessively hot day on Friday, July 9, 1897. As he stepped from the train at 35th Street and Lake Park, and began walking home, he was stricken by a heat stroke and rushed to Mercy hospital. He died that night at the age of 43.
Later, the first Black Catholic Bishop, Harold Perry, SVD, wrote this of Fr. Augustus Tolton: “Fr. Tolton found his opposition within the Church and among church people, where compassion should have offset established prejudice and ignorance. It was his lot to disprove the myth that young Black men could not assume the responsibility of the Catholic priesthood.”
Information courtesy of HolyAngles.com
Blessings and Peace to you,
Evangelist Richard Lane, Qorban Ministries www.Qorban.net