The Rev. Augustus Tolton, first black Catholic priest in the U.S.
Submitted by Christopher Holownia, n.S.J.
Our first spotlight goes on Fr. Augustus Tolton, who conquered almost insurmountable odds and is now regarded as the very first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States.
Born Into Slavery
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 moved with his mother and two siblings 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.
From Illinois to Rome, Back to Illinois
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.
Toltonwas 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.
Ministry in Chicago and the St. Augustine Society
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.”
Road to Canonization
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.
O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time.
We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.
A Prayer for Father Tolton
Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.
Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.
Bishop Joseph N. Perry
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archdiocese of Chicago