Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in Ralls County, Missouri, on April 1, 1854. His parents were Peter Paul Tolton and his wife, Martha Jane. The slaveholder family, the Elliotts, had all their slaves baptized, including the Toltons and their four children. The outbreak of the Civil War inspired in Peter Paul the desire for freedom. He escaped and made his way to the North, where he joined the army. Sadly, he became one of the 180,000 black soldiers who died fighting for their freedom.
Peter Paul’s widow, Martha, now desired for her and her children the freedom for which her husband had fought. Taking her children in tow, she managed to cross the Mississippi into Illinois and freedom. She began attending Mass in Quincy, IL. She and her children were welcomed at the parish by the pastor, but white parishioners started protesting when Martha attempted to place her children in the Catholic School. To avoid confrontation, the School Sisters of Notre Dame dedicated themselves to privately tutoring the Tolton children.
As a young man, Augustus developed an interest in the priesthood. His two pastors, Fr. McGuirr and Fr. Richardt, encouraged Augustus and attempted to enroll him in several diocesan seminaries. Prejudice won out, sadly, and the seminaries refused to admit a black student. Though discouraged in their efforts, the two pastors did not give up. They began teaching Augustine his theology themselves and eventually secured for him entry into the Franciscan College in Quincy in 1878 and, two years later, at the college of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome!
Augustus Tolton was ordained a Catholic priest on April 24, 1886. He expected to be sent to the missions in Africa. To his surprise, the Cardinal in charge of appointments informed him that he was going back to the United States to serve in a parish in Illinois. “America needs Negro priests,” the Cardinal told the newly-ordained Fr. Tolton. “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?” Father Tolton replied in Latin, “Posso” (Yes, I can).
Father Tolton’s first assignment was to St. Joseph Church in Quincy, Illinois, the town to which his mother had escaped. He was a wonderful preacher, and this gained him much respect among the German and Irish Catholics, who would gather with their Black Catholic confreres to hear Fr. Tolton preach. Other pastors, as well, invited the young priest to preach at their churches. As well, Fr. Tolton’s religious instruction classes were always filled with eager catechumens. Partly out of jealousy over his success and partly because of racial bigotry, Fr. Tolton suffered harassment from both Protestant ministers and, most upsetting, another local Catholic pastor, Fr. Weiss. The harassment became so severe that Archbishop Feenan of Chicago decided to transfer Fr. Tolton to a poor black Catholic parish on the south side of Chicago.
St. Augustine Church would be Fr. Tolton’s parish for life. It was from here that he served the black Catholic community in Chicago. The parish was, indeed, very poor, consisting only of a basement chapel. The parish could not even afford a residence for the priest, so friends had to contribute funds to rent an apartment for their new pastor. Fr. Tolton’s mother and sister moved in with him. Fr. Tolton opened a school for Black children near his parish that was funded by his friend and confidant, St. Katherine Drexel. Eventually, Fr. Tolton was able to build a church, St. Monica’s, with funds provided by Mother Drexel and Mrs. Anne O’Neill, a philanthropist. St. Monica’s grew from 30 families to 600 under Fr. Tolton’s tenure. “Good Father Gus,” became well known and respected for his preaching, his beautiful singing voice, and for playing the accordion! His ministry to his fellow black Catholics brought him attention from the national Catholic hierarchy, and Fr. Tolton’s reputation as a preacher continued to grow. He was invited to speak at the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington, DC in 1889. Daniel Rudd, who helped organize the Congress, wrote in The Irish Canadian, of Fr. Tolton after the Congress: “For a long time the idea prevailed that the negro was not wanted beyond the altar rail, and for that reason, no doubt, hundreds of young colored men who would otherwise be officiating at the altar rail to-day have entered other walks. Now that this mistaken idea has been dispelled by the advent of one full-blooded negro priest, the Rev. Augustus Tolton, many more have entered the seminaries in this country and Europe…”. Reporters were astonished to see, a few months later, a black Catholic priest on the altar with James Cardinal Gibbons, celebrating the centenary of the Diocese of Baltimore.
As the first full-blooded African-American priest in the United States, Fr. Tolton suffered the slurs and insults of many who did not merit the title of “enlightened.” Fr. Tolton endured such with dignity, patience, and courage. Though the Healy brothers had been ordained before Fr. Augustus, they were of mixed race and could pass as white. The Healys never made much of their racial background. Fr. Tolton was the first priest of full-blooded African descent, and could not pass as anything other than black.
Fr. Tolton suffered “spells of illness” beginning in 1893, which forced him to take a brief leave of absence in 1895. On July 9, 1897, as he was returning to Chicago in from a retreat with fellow diocesan priests. Fr. Tolton exited the train in the midst of an extreme heat wave just before noon and began walking back to his parish. He was overtaken by the heat and collapsed on the streets. Rushed to Mercy Hospital, Fr. Tolton’s fever rose unabated and he died of heat stoke and uremia that night, surrounded by his mother, his sister, the hospital chaplain who had administered last rites, and several Sister of Mercy.
Fr. John Gilliam, vicar general of the archdiocese and representative of Abp. Feenan, presided over Fr. Tolton’s Requiem Mass at St. Monica’s, accompanied by 100 priests of the archdiocese. Fr. Tolton’s remains were interred at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, as per his request.
On February 24, 2011, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, formally opened the cause of canonization for Fr. Augustus Tolton and he was given the title “Servant of God.” Fr. Tolton’s cause is also being promoted by the Diocese of Springfield, IL, where he grew up and first served as a priest, and by the Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, where his family was enslaved.
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.
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. Amen.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.