Fr. Augustus Tolton was the first recognized African American Catholic priest. Born into slavery in Missouri on April 1, 1854, and was baptized Catholic. His family escaped when he was a child and ran away to Illinois, a free state. 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. 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. He faced both racial opposition and triumph over the 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
There’s ALOT more to his story, but I just wanted to have this much here.
With all this said and for the fact that this apostolate was started on April 1, 2018, the 132nd anniversary of his birth, it is only right that Fr. Tolton is a patron for BLACKCATHOLIC.
I will end with 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
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/