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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fr. Augustine Tolton - America's First Black Priest

From the Examiner.com

By Pamela Luther

With Illinois’s political dirty underwear hanging out to dry in the past few months, it looks like more political negative dispersions are falling upon us Is there any one who has not heard enough of Blago and now the evolving comments by Burris? My "profound" editorial comment is “Ugh”. So much for that, as far as I am concerned. I want to examine a person of integrity.

One illustrious man of exemplary character from Illinois impacted Chicago and the mid-state region. This was America’s first black priest, Fr. Augustine Tolton.
He was born into slavery in 1854 in Missouri. He was baptized Catholic and was apparently catechized (taught) in the faith as a young person. There are several versions regarding his escape from slavery, but they all grant that his mother escaped with him (age 7) and her other children to Hannibal, Missouri where they crossed the Mississippi in small boat into Illinois, a free state.

They made their way 21 miles north to Quincy, IL where they ultimately resided and worked in a tobacco factory. Young Augustine was befriended by an Irish Catholic priest who allowed Tolton to attend St. Peter’s parochial school. Although Illinois was a free state, racial biases ran strong during the Civil War era, and his going to this school caused controversy among those in the parish. Even though Tolton was very bright and was involved serving the parish as an altar boy, the hullaballoo ballooned. His mentor, Fr Peter McGirr, sensing the vocational call this young man had, encouraged him to finish his education. Tolton and his siblings stayed in the parochial school in spite of the social backlash.

In spite of adversity and racism, Tolton finished school and graduated from Quincy College, a Franciscan college. As he prepared to enter the priesthood, it became clear that the racial barriers still existed. Every single American seminary rejected him as a student, even the one that trained priests to minister to the black community!

His benefactors finally were able to assist Tolton enough that he was able to go to Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. There he became fluent in Italian as well as learning Latin and Greek.Tolton was ordained in Rome in 1886. Shortyly after his ordination, he was informed that his mission would be to “negroes in the United States.”

Upon returning to Quincy, he celebrated his first American mass at St.Boniface parish and was appointed to serve at St. Joseph Negro Church in that city. He was such an articulate preacher that many whites were flocking to the parish; thus causing great controversy again because of the ugliness of racism. Tolton graciously decided to move on.

Because of prejudice and the attitudes of the times, Fr. Augustine Tolton received a significant amount of flak while serving as pastor of St. Joseph’s Negro Church in Quincy, IL. He was very successful and became well known as an inspiring homilist with his eloquent voice and impressive education.

“The large number of people who sought his classes of inquiry, the crowded Sunday Masses, the coming together of people of both races in his church brought down on him not only the jealously and scorn of some white priests, but also the envy of some Protestant Negro ministers”. (rootweb)

This did not go over well in the post-Civil war years where racism persisted in spite of the emancipation of slaves. It appears that Tolton agreed to leave the city—I assume that he didn’t want to be the source for disunity within the Church.

He went to Chicago where he was well received. In Chicago, he led the development of the “Negro national parish” at St. Monica’s Catholic Church at 36th and Dearborn with the help of St. Elizabeth’s parish. He was very successful earning national attention and a parishioner count of 600 people. He was affectionately known as Good Father Gus. The parish ultimately became an mission of St. Elizabeth's.

Fr Tolton had some health issues and died from heat stroke one hot Chicago summer day in July, 1887. He was buried in Quincy, IL at a priest’s cemetery, as he had requested. Apparently his coffin was buried very deeply so that another priest’s coffin could be placed over it. According to sources, it is surprising that, given the times, it was amazing that he was even allowed to be buried in a “white” cemetery, and speculation exists regarding racism following him to the grave.
I find this man to be incredibly fascinating. He overcame insurmountable odds in order to fulfill the call God had given him. He bore the “yoke of slavery and racism’. Even in the face of all odds, he received an unbelievably rich education and ministered to the black community of his time. He was called upon by bishops from large dioceses to help establish parishes for black Catholics. The hope of possibility, the achievement of all he did demonstrate the power of God, the importance of mentors and strong self-determination to live out the Gospel in the face of all negative odds. That to me is very inspiring!
Read the full story in this book:


Chris Osgood said...

What a great story!

greenlly said...

From slave to Priest is a very good book,however, if any one want an updated knowledge of Father Augustus Tolton's life." A Place for My Children" Go To:


Sabrina Penn, Father Tolton's third grand niece.

Dan Wintering said...


I just finished the book "From Slavery to Priest", last year we named our son after Augustine Tolton. His name is Tolton Augustus. I believe the story is more than inspirational...has anyone looked into the process of making Father Augustine Tolton a Venerable and beginning his journey to sainthood? Also how can I get in touch with any of his family?

Thank you,
Dan Wintering