Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) | b. Ralls County, Missouri
The story of Augustus Tolton is one of the most inspirational stories from the Heartland that we’ve come across. Tolton would conquer almost insurmountable odds to escape slavery, and become our countries first African-American Roman Catholic Priest!
Fr. Tolton was born in 1854 in Missouri into a black Catholic slave family, shortly after Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and two years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published.
Augustus escaped the binds of slavery in Missouri with his mother and two siblings, relocating to Quincy, Illinois in 1862 with the aid of a handful of Union soldiers. They joined a Catholic church whose congregation was largely constituted by German immigrants, and at the age of 9, Augustus began working in a tobacco factory.
Encouraged by his mother to pursue an education, he met with resistance from many area Catholic schools because parish and staff were threatened and harassed by his presence. Augustus also discussed the possibility of entering the priesthood, yet no American seminary would admit a black student.
In 1868, Augustus succeeded in enrolling in St. Peter School in Quincy, IL. He was confirmed at St. Peter Church at age 16 and graduated from St. Peter School at age 18.
Tolton was then tutored privately by local priests until Quincy University (then St. Francis Solanus College) admitted him in 1878 as a special student. He departed for Rome on February 15, 1880, to enter the seminary there. He expected to become a missionary priest in Africa.
Tolton was ordained at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome on April 24, 1886, and told he would return as a missionary to his home country of the United States in Quincy Illinois! He returned to his home town to become pastor of St. Joseph Church in Quincy, IL, a mainly black church.
Tolton became such a popular preacher that he attracted some members of local white – mostly German or Irish – congregations. He therefore also faced discrimination from other local priests, who resented what they perceived as competition.
The St. Augustine Society, an African American Catholic charitable organization, contacted Tolton about moving to Chicago to help its members found a congregation.
In late 1889, Rome granted him a transfer to Chicago, where he not only became the city’s first African American priest but also was granted jurisdiction by the archbishop over all of Chicago’s black Catholics.
At the beginning he ministered to a black congregation in the basement of an old church.
Through the combined efforts of Tolton and the St. Augustine Society, as well as a private gift, enough money was raised to build most of the structure for a church building, and in January, 1894, Tolton held Mass in the new St. Monica Church on Chicago’s South Side, built by people of African American descent for that same community to worship. Tolton was its first pastor.
He soon developed a national reputation as a minister and as a public speaker, yet he devoted the majority of the remainder of his life to his congregants, most of whom lived in poverty, and to the completion of St. Monica Church.He died shortly after succumbing to heat stroke at the age of 43.
Although slavery ended legally after the American Civil War, severe racial prejudice remained dominant in American life for many decades, and the Catholic Church was not immune to this evil. Participation of blacks in ordinary political, economic, social, and even religious life was hampered and curtailed at every turn.
Father Tolton lived courageously in the midst of this prejudice with the help of some Catholic priests, religious sisters, and laity. Tolton’s story is one of carving out one’s humanity as a man and as a priest in an atmosphere of racial volatility. His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed, and accepted.
Bishop Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, wrote: “He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”
Fr. Tolton is on the road to canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church. His cause was opened in early 2012 when he was named Servant of God, and he is currently awaiting beatification. In the book, Father Augustus Tolton, the fascinating pages, popular author and speaker Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers tells the gripping story of Augustine Tolton, who valiantly overcame a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges birth into slavery, his father's death, abject poverty, and even being denied acceptance by every Catholic seminary in America to become the first black American priest.Despite the hardships placed on Fr. Tolton by a culture rooted in racial hatred, he became a tireless messenger of the Gospel, plunging into the Deep South where segregation was decreed by harsh laws, penetrating even the hardest of hearts with the richness, beauty, and truth of the Catholic Faith.
He was a beacon of hope to black Catholics in the 19th Century who were trying to find a home in the American Church. He was a visionary who saw beyond race and politics, teaching that the Catholic Church wants to free us not just from slavery, but from slavery to sin.
Amidst great persecution, Fr. Tolton showed us that being configured to Christ means emptying ourselves so that God can fill us, exposing the weakest parts of who we are so that God can make us strong, becoming blind to the ways of this world so Christ can lead us, and dying to ourselves so we can rise with Christ.
All who seek to be formed more perfectly to Christ have a role model in Fr. Tolton, a persevering and holy man who sought above all the salvation of souls.