The life of the first African-American Catholic Priest in America, Fr. Augustus Tolton, is an amazing story that reflects the pain, struggles, determination, and heroic triumph of so many African-Americans.
Servant of God Fr. Augustus John Tolton, sometimes referred to as Augustine, was born on April 11, 1854 to Martha Jane Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton, both slaves from neighboring farms near Brush Creek in Missouri. Both parents were raised and baptized as Catholics, according to the stipulations of their owners. In 1851 Martha and Peter were allowed to marry but remained under their original slave ownerships. The couple had three children, including Augustus. From a young age, Augustus was pressed in hard physical labor along with his parents and siblings.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, his father, Peter Tolton, bravely escaped his masters and enlisted in the Union Army, but sadly died in a St. Louis hospital of dysentery shortly after. When Augustus was nine, his mother Martha escaped out of slavery with her three young children, and the family crossed the Mississippi River into Quincy, Illinois. The family was confronted by Confederate soldiers, but were protected form arrest by a group of Union soldiers
After arriving in Quincy, Illinois, Martha, Augustus, and Charley began working at the Herris Tobacco Company where they made cigars. After Charley’s death at a young age, Augustine met Father Peter McGirr, an Irish Immigrant priest, from Fintona, County Tyrone who gave him the opportunity to attend St. Peter’s parochial school during the winter months when the factory was closed.
The priest’s decision was controversial in the parish. Although abolitionists were active in the town, many of Father McGirr’s parishioners objected to a black student at their children’s school. McGirr held fast and allowed Tolton to study there. Later Tolton continued studies directly with some priests.
Despite McGirr’s support, Tolton was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. Impressed by his personal qualities, McGirr continued to help him and enabled Tolton’s study in Rome. Tolton graduated from St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) and attended the Pontifical Urbaniana University, where he became fluent in Italian as well as studying Latin and Greek.
Father Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886 in Saint John Lateran by Cardinal Giovanni Parocchi, and celebrated his first Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Expecting to serve in an African mission, he had been studying its regional cultures and languages, but after his ordination, instead was told that he would be needed in America to minister to the communities of African-American Catholics there.
He was assigned to his home diocese in Illinois as pastor of the Church of Saint Joseph in Quincy. Under Tolton’s leadership, the church grew to capacity and included white parishioners. This angered a Quincy clergy leader, who urged Tolton to minister only to black members or leave. In 1889 Tolton requested reassignment to Chicago, accompanied by his mother, sister and 19 of his Quincy parishioners.
In Chicago, Tolton became pastor of an all-black parish of 30 that had been meeting in temporary facilities. Tolton renamed it Saint Monica’s Chapel, opening initially as a store front church. By 1893 the parish had received a large donation from a benefactor and constructed a church on the corner of 36th and Dearborn Streets. It grew to serve 600 black and white parishioners.
In failing health and during a record heat wave, Fr. Augustus Tolton died on July 9, 1897 at the age of 43. He was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy. In 2010 the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it was introducing Fr. Augustus Tolton for canonization into sainthood. A formal report documenting his life, known as a “postitio,” was submitted to the Vatican in 2014, and is awaiting a ruling from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The official prayer for his canonization can be found here.