No one walking around Chicago would find much to signify that Father Augustus Tolton, widely regarded as the first African-American priest to minister in the United States, served there.

The church where he began ministering to black people — St. Augustine’s Church, a sort of parish-within-a-parish — is gone. Its hosting parish, Old St. Mary’s, lives on in a new building more than a mile away from its original location.

The church that he started to build for black Catholic parishioners, St. Monica, was never finished, and the building was torn down long ago.
But the spirit of Father Tolton endures.

“Father Tolton remains with us in spirit,” said Vanessa White, director of the Tolton Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The program, which provides scholarships for African-American laymen and women pursuing graduate degrees in ministry, is a joint effort of CTU and the Archdiocese of Chicago. “What his story shows is that if you have a call from God, you have to keep pursuing it, and God will prevail.”

Bishop Joseph Perry was assigned by Cardinal Francis George last March to bring Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood to the Vatican.

Bishop Perry, the only African-American auxiliary bishop serving in Chicago, said, “It gave black Catholics an identity, a sense of pride, that one of us could hold one of the highest positions in the Church.”

Early struggles

Augustus Tolton — sometimes called August or Augustine, known to parishioners as “Father Gus” — escaped from slavery in 1862 with his mother, sister and brother by crossing the Mississippi River in a rowboat in the middle of the night. His father, Peter, had already escaped to fight for the Union in the Civil War; he died of dysentery and his family never saw him again.

The family worshiped at St. Boniface Church in Quincy, Ill., and in 1865 his mother, Martha Tolton, enrolled her son in school there, but, because of the negative reaction of white families, he withdrew.

But he impressed the priests and the sisters he met with his humility and seriousness, and was later invited to attend St. Peter’s parish school by the pastor, Father Peter McGirr. There he found himself years behind his peers, so he received extra tutoring from the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“Through it all, Augustus was subjected to subtle insults and derisive remarks because of his race,” Bishop Perry wrote in a statement. “But with the help of priests who befriended him and the sisters he was able to endure the unjust treatment without retaliating, but not without tears. Father McGirr and the sisters stood firm in maintaining the right of blacks to a Catholic education.”

When priest friends saw the signs of a priestly vocation in Tolton, they encouraged him, but told him to be patient while they looked for a seminary that would teach him. Every seminary they contacted told the priests they were “not ready” to teach a black man.

Finally, he was admitted to the seminary for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide) in Rome. The young man went gratefully, with the intention of serving as a missionary in Africa.

Beloved preacher

The day before being ordained in April 1886, he learned that, instead, he would return to Quincy.

He tried for more than three years, but found resentment — not from his parishioners, but from priests at neighboring parishes and some Protestant clergymen, whose own parishioners liked to hear Father Tolton preach and sing. When Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago requested that he come to the city to minister to black Catholics , he agreed.

Father Tolton started at St. Augustine Parish, then opened St. Monica Chapel in a storefront the following year while construction started on the church building. He was much loved by members of the community — black and white Catholics, and non-Catholic black people as well.

“He was a gentle pastor,” Bishop Perry said. “The whites who came wanted to hear him preach. He ministered to the poor of the community.”

But his health was not good, and he died of heatstroke at the age of 43, walking home from the train station after returning from a retreat in Bourbonnais, Ill., on a 105-degree day.

St. Monica’s Church was torn down in 1945, when the parish was merged with nearby St. Elizabeth. But Father Tolton is acknowledged not only in the program that bears his name at Catholic Theological Union, but also in a program named for him at De La Salle Institute, a Catholic high school two blocks away from the site of St. Monica.

“Father Augustus Tolton proved what the human spirit can accomplish despite insurmountable odds, in this instance, the evil of racism and discrimination,” Bishop Perry said. “Father Tolton demonstrated that blacks could be dedicated adherents as well as ministers of the Lord, that the black Catholic community has much to offer the Church if they are recognized and are given the opportunities to use their talents and abilities. It remains the task of the Church now to raise up his holiness for the edification of the Church.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Father Tolton time line (sidebar)

1854: Born April 1 in Ralls County, Mo.

1862: Escaped with his mother, Martha, and siblings to Quincy, Ill.

1865: Entered St. Boniface School; left because parish and staff were being threatened.

1868: Entered St. Peter School.

1870: Received his first Communion in 1870 on the feast of Corpus Christi.

1872: Graduated from St. Peter at 18.

1878: Enrolled in St. Francis College — now Quincy University. He received special instruction because he was far advanced over the other students.

1880: Departed for Rome on Feb. 15 to enter the seminary.

 1886: Ordained on April 24 at St. John Lateran Basilica. Celebrated his first Mass in Quincy on July 18 at St. Boniface Church, and became pastor of St. Joseph Church.

1889: Moved to Chicago in December.

1891: Opened St. Monica Chapel in a storefront in the 2200 block of South Indiana; started construction on St. Monica Church.

1897: Died July 9 of heatstroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43.

More reading (sidebar)

Much of the historical information in this article came from “From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the First Black Priest of the United States,” by Caroline Hemesath, SSF, originally published in 1973 by the Franciscan Herald Press, republished in 2006 by Ignatius Press ($16.95).