Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton – America’s First Black Priest
Born: April 1, 1854
Death: July 9, 1897
Sainthood Cause: Declared Venerable on June 12, 2019 by Pope Francis
Early Life and Escape from Slavery
– Born into slavery in Missouri on April 1, 1854, and was baptized Catholic.
– When the Civil War broke out, he father escaped to fight for the Union army. Tolton would never see him alive again. He died shortly after of dysentery in St. Louis.
– He escaped with the rest of his family when he was still a child and ran away to Illinois, a free state.
The Call of the Priesthood
– Tolton later felt called to the priesthood, but faced much opposition and no American seminary would accepted him.
– With help from an Irish Franciscan priest, Peter McGirr, he was accepted to study in Rome.
– He ordained on April 24, 1886, and sent back to the United States.
– He first ministered to black Catholics in Quincy, Illinois and was later transferred to Chicago.
– Led a mission society in the basement of St. Mary’s Church
– After some time in Chicago he led the establishment of an ethnically black Catholic parish, St. Monica’s, which still survives to this day as St. Elizabeth’s.
– Parish grew to over 600 parishioners
– Was known for “eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice, and his talent for playing the accordion.”(The Victoria Advocate, 2007)
– He faced both racial opposition and triumph over e. course of his priesthood.
– He died at the age of 43 on July 9, 1897 after collapsing the previous day upon returning from a priests retreat during heat wave that swept the city that year.
-His solemn Requiem Mass was attended by more than 100 brother priests and a crowd that overflowed the church.
On this grave stone which later replaced the original reads:
Rev. Augustine Tolton
The First Colored Priest in the United States
Born in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri
April 1, 1854
Ordained in Rome, Italy, April 24, 1886
Died July 9, 1897
Requiescat in Pace
I will end with these three quotes:
“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.”
– Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni announcing to the committee deciding where Tolton would be sent in the world after ordination. The Cardinal overruled the previous decision to send him to Africa.
“As Cardinal Gibbons retired to his dais [on the altar at the Mass], the reporters in the improvised press gallery noticed for the first time, not six feet away from him in the sanctuary among the abbots and other special dignitaries, the black face of Father Tolton of Chicago, the first colored Catholic priest ordained in America.”
– New York Times, November 11, 1889
“The Catholic Church deplores a 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. I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word. It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors… it was through the direction of a Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are black. She had colored saints – Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.”
– Venerable Augustus Tolton
My patron page for Tolton.
His Cause for sainthood is ongoing.
On February 24, 2011 his cause was opened by the Archdiocese of Chicago making him a Servant of God, the first step towards canonization.
On June 12, 2019, Tolton was declared Venerable by Pope Francis I, the second step towards canonization.
Cause website: www.toltoncanonization.org/
* * *
My personal thoughts:
I think Tolton was the first African American I found out was on the way to becoming a saint. I found him excitingly unique because he was a Black American Catholic (when there were not/still not many), he was a Black priest (especially for him being the first for America), and he could be a saint in the future. And even now as a African American, it feels good that I can claim a certain possession of him and call him my own in some way.
There are three things I want to share in reflection when it comes to Tolton.
1) Tolton is someone I can look up to and mold myself after. His life was amazing, from slavery to priesthood, and he is an image I can try to replicate. He looks like me and we both (albeit broadly and distantly) share a common heritage and ancestry as two Black men. Especially as a man in the seminary, Tolton is the giant whose shoulders I could very well stand upon (if God wills it).
2) The Black community knows very well of MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Douglass, Tubman, and many others, but how many know about Tolton? I doubt many. To my memory, I had absolutely no idea about him till after I became Catholic. His story should join the litany of other Black lives that speak from history to give us a hope and a future. I think many in my community would be proud to know about him. Even more broadly than that, I think that all Americans would be proud to know about him as well given the fact the he is the US’s first Black priest. His life is very important to our history as a nation.
3) Lastly, I know Tolton’s story on a broad level, but going back and doing the research to have him featured on this month’s series of Black Saints/Holy Ones makes me realize that there is A LOT more that I should know about him. His biography on http://www.toltoncanonization.org/biography/biography.html provides so much detail that I did not know before that I should be up on. I need to memorize his life, so I can be able to quickly relay his story to other people.
I end with something I penned about him in an article I wrote for uCatholic earlier this year that sums up everything nicely:
“Fr. Augustus Tolton was a true priest of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church, and there was not a thing any detractor could have said about it. He was as much of an alter Christus as a White priest was. He could confect the same Eucharist, forgive the same sins, witness the same marriages, baptize the same babies, and anoint the same sick all not due to his race but rather to the sacrament he received. When he performed his duties he did them in the Person of Christ not in the person of a Black or White man, for the One Priesthood he was ordained into is not a respecter of race. All of this would be true for any other Black man ordained after him.”
From “The Great Equalizer: How the Sacraments Make Us All Equal”
Full article: ucatholic.com/…/the-great-equalizer-how-the-sacraments-mak…/.
Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton pray for us!
Pray for his canonization!