Friday February 19, 2016

Augustus Tolton

A brief biography of the first African-American priest

Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) is considered by many the first African-American priest. He was born, and baptized at St. Peter’s Church, in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri, as a slave. Between 1860 and 1863, his father Peter escaped to Saint Louis to enlist with the Union army. His mother Martha, aware that rural western Ralls County was attracting people who kidnapped slaves and sold them, escaped with Augustus and his three siblings after his father fled. Mother and children arrived in Quincy, Illinois, after crossing the Mississippi River from Hannibal, Missouri.

In Quincy, two of Augustus’ siblings died. He was enrolled in school. He received racist bullying from the white students at Saint Boniface parish school, and then to Saint Peter parish school. The pastor there confronted the parishioners’ racist attitudes more effectively than his counterpart at Saint Boniface. By 1878, Augustus Tolton trained to be a catechist for the African-American children in Quincy. Two years later, he went to Rome for priestly studies as no seminary in the United States would knowingly accept a former slave.

In 1886, Augustus was ordained a priest in Rome. He expected to serve in Africa but was told that he would be returning to the Alton, Illinois, diocese, in which Quincy is located. Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni told him that his service in the US would be an opportunity to see if the United States truly “deserved the honor” to be called the “most enlightened nation” of the world. Upon his return to the Alton diocese, he was named pastor of Saint Joseph parish in Quincy. This parish served the African-American population of that city.

During his time as pastor at Saint Joseph, Father Tolton showed how merciful he was in two different ways. First, he had the opportunity to baptize the man who before the Civil War was his owner. When his former master saw him, he begged forgiveness. Father Tolton told him he was forgiven many years before. He was then baptized and receive Communion for the first time.

The second time came when a new dean of the Quincy parishes was named. The other priests were friendly to Father Tolton, but this one was not. He used racist slurs when referring to Fr. Tolton, but Augustus Tolton did not reciprocate. He bore these wrongs patiently. However, the dean fomented racist attitudes, perhaps out of jealousy of Fr. Tolton’s abilities. This forced Fr. Tolton to ask for a transfer to serve the Archdiocese of Chicago, which he received in late 1889. In 1890, Saint Joseph parish in Quincy closed.

After his arrival in Chicago, Fr. Tolton started to raise funds to build a church for Saint Monica parish to serve the African-Americans of Chicago. In 1891, he communicated with Mother Katherine Drexel, who ultimately donated $36,000 dollars to assist in building the church. The church was dedicated in 1893. Fr. Tolton served the parish until his death in 1897. His cause for canonization opened in 2011, and he was declared Venerable in 2012.

Father Tolton shows us was mercy can look like. He forgave his owner when he was a slave, and he bore the wrongs he received as a pastor in Quincy patiently. He serves as an example to the Church today as She strives to end bigotry inside and outside Her naves and sanctuaries.

– Brother Andrew Kosmowski, S.M., Librarian, Marian Library/IMRI


Bibliography:

Archdiocese of Chicago. Father Augustus Tolton: Cause for Canonization. Accessed February 5, 2016. http://www.toltoncanonization.org/default.htm.

Hemesath, Caroline. From Slave to Priest. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973.

Penn, Sabrina A. A Place for My Children. Chicago: Pennlink, 2007. Sabrina A. Penn is a great-great-great-grandniece of Fr. Tolton.

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