From Slavery to the Priesthood

On March 2, 2010, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., the archbishop of Chicago, announced that a cause for canonization had been introduced by the archdiocese.

The new candidate for sainthood is truly remarkable for he was the first American diocesan priest of African descent and was the son of slaves. His name was Father John Augustine Tolton, and in his short life of 43 years he endured racial hatred, poverty and intolerance with fortitude and charity. He is a model for African-American Catholics and a witness to the Church’s welcome to all people, regardless of their color or background.

“The Time Was Not Yet Right”

Tolton was born on April 1, 1854, into slavery in Brush Creek, Mo., to slaves Peter and Martha Tolton. His parents had been married in a Catholic ceremony and made certain that he was baptized, at St. Peter Church, a few miles away near Hannibal, Mo.

At the start of the Civil War, his father escaped and joined the Union army. Later, in 1863, his mother made the courageous decision to flee Missouri with her three children to the free state of Illinois. Augustine was 9 years old at the time.

Once safely in Quincy, Ill., Martha found work with her sons in a local cigar factory and took them to Mass in the local German parish of St. Boniface. The family endured great hardship and tragedy, including chronic poverty, the death of Augustine’s brother in 1863, and the news that Augustine’s father had died from dysentery in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Martha enrolled Augustine in the parish school at St. Boniface for the part of the year when business was slow at the cigar factory. Within a month, she was asked to withdraw him by the pastor and the sisters at the school because of anonymous threats and complaints that a black child was studying there. Martha reluctantly enrolled him in a public school, and the family departed St. Boniface for St. Peter Church in Quincy, Ill., where they found a slightly more welcoming environment.

The chief reason for that welcome was the pastor there, a fierce Irish priest named Peter McGirr, who issued the unexpected invitation for Augustine to attend the parochial school at St. Peter Church.

It was Father McGirr also who allowed young Augustine to serve as an altar boy and who first encouraged him to discern a vocation to the priesthood. Augustine embraced the possibility, but both of them knew how difficult it would be to secure his entry into the seminary. This proved to be the case, and so several priests banded together to begin his preparation anyway. Augustine progressed swiftly. He completed high school and then graduated from Quincy College.

There remained the problem of a seminary. Every application was declined on the basis that “the time was not yet right” for a black seminarian. Undaunted, Father McGirr won the help of the Franciscan Fathers, and through their minister general secured admission for Augustine into the College of the Propaganda Fide in Rome to become a missionary in Africa.

Tolton later acknowledged the immense debt he owed to Father McGirr, declaring, in 1889: “The Catholic Church deplores double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy, but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight.”

A Missionary to America

In February 1880, Tolton joyously set sail for Rome, and the next six years of intense studies in languages, theology and missiology were the happiest of his life. Finally, on April 24, 1886, he achieved the fulfillment of his dreams: Augustine Tolton was ordained a priest in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. On Easter Sunday, he celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. His life had changed forever, but not in the way he had expected.

The day before he received holy orders, he was informed that the Propaganda Fide was not sending him to Africa. Instead, he was heading back to the United States. He was still to be a missionary, but to America, a country that had ended slavery but still did not have one black priest.

For Father Tolton, the news was shocking. He knew what he was being asked to do. He had grown up facing racial prejudice, and he was acutely aware that returning as a priest would only make him a target of hatred from anti-Catholics and even from some Catholics who were not ready to accept a black man as a priest. Tolton, however, obediently accepted the assignment.

After a joyous welcome home from Father McGirr, he celebrated Mass on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church. In attendance were several thousand people, both black and white.

His first assignment was as pastor to the African-American parish of St. Joseph Church that had been established out of St. Boniface. He proved a gifted homilist, and when whites started attending the parish and seeking his spiritual advice, complaints were made to the local bishop that Father Tolton was trying to “mix the races.”

In the end, the situation of intolerance became so strident that Father Tolton was forced to ask permission of the authorities in Rome to accept an invitation from Archbishop Patrick Feehan to serve as a pastor for black Catholics in the city of Chicago. This solution was accepted by Rome, and on Dec. 19, 1889, Father Tolton left his family and friends for Chicago and the challenges of a new phase of service.

Father Gus

About 1882, black Catholics in the Chicago area had started the St. Augustine Society, dedicated to visiting the sick, providing proper funerals and feeding the poor. Mass for them was celebrated in the basement of Old St. Mary’s Church on Ninth and Wabash. With his arrival, Father Tolton became their chaplain.

In 1891, Father Tolton won permission to move out of the basement by building a church for the African-American Catholics of Chicago, what he hoped would be St. Monica Church, on the corner of 35th and Dearborn.

Even though much of the church was not finished due to lack of funds, Father Tolton celebrated the first Mass at St. Monica in 1893. What had begun as a tiny flock hidden away in the bottom of a church became a congregation of more than 600, and St. Monica Church served as the spiritual center for black Catholic life in the city for decades to come.

Father Tolton embraced his people with selfless devotion and settled into his role as the first black pastor in Chicago. He was called “Father Gus,” but while he had been accepted by his fellow Chicago priests, his ministry was still largely performed alone among the shocking slums of the city.

Father Tolton worked tirelessly to care for the sick and the forgotten, giving completely of himself to a community still struggling for acceptance and justice. And through it all, he endured intolerance and hatred both for being a black man and a Catholic priest.

A symbol of his new life was a change in living quarters. He had lived initially in a small room on South Indiana Avenue, near St. Mary’s Church. Later, with the help of his congregation, Father Tolton was able to move into a small house behind St. Monica Church. Significantly, the added space allowed him to invite his mother and sister, Anne, to come and live with him and unite the family once more.

As his fame spread, he was invited to speak at national gatherings. In 1889, he gave an address at the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington, D.C, and was asked to speak to Catholics in Boston, New York and even as far away as Galveston, Texas. At the same time, he pressed ahead with future plans for St. Monica.

Unsuspectingly, Death Arrived

In early July 1897, Father Tolton attended the annual retreat of Chicago priests at St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Ill. The temperature reached 105 degrees in the city, and while returning to the parish on July 9, he collapsed from the severe heat near Calumet Avenue in Chicago. He was taken to nearby Mercy Hospital, but he never regained consciousness and died a few hours later. The cause of his shocking death was listed as sunstroke. The stunned black Catholic community bid a loving farewell to Father Gus, and his remains were taken to St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy.

The achievements of Father Tolton did not die with him. He was cherished among black Catholics in Chicago and across the country. He also remained a powerful model for young black men seeking to follow his footsteps into the priesthood and for all priests dedicated to proclaiming Christ’s love in the face of hatred and scorn.

America’s first black Catholic bishop, Bishop Harold Perry, S.V.D., wrote of the challenges Father Tolton faced: “Father Tolton found his opposition within the Church and among church people, where compassion should have offset established prejudice and ignorance. It was his lot to disprove the myth that young black men could not assume the responsibility of the Catholic priesthood.”

Matthew E. Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and professor of Church history at the Catholic Distance University. He is also editor of the Catholic Almanac and The Catholic Answer magazine for Our Sunday Visitor.