Fr. Augustine Tolton: America’s First Black Priest

At night the river looked deeper than ever as the woman rowed across it with her three small children. That was dangerous enough but they were being pursued. They were being shot at. They were fleeing for their lives.

The Civil War had just begun. The woman and her children were slaves. They had fled Missouri and were crossing over into the Northern state of Illinois, and to freedom. That night, the woman evaded her pursuers. When she landed on the northern bank of the river she pulled her children to their knees and prayed: ‘Now, you are free; never forget the goodness of the Lord‘. And, with that, one of her children, Augustine Tolton, later to become the first African-American to be ordained priest, was ‘freed’.

Augustine Tolton was born 1 April, 1854. His parents were slaves, so he too became one. His parents were Catholics, so he too was baptised into his parents’ Holy Faith. His father, Peter, was an honest and good man well liked by his slave owner for whom he worked hard. Seven years after Augustine, or Gus as he was known, was born, war broke out between the States. Peter talked to his wife, Martha, of his desire to escape and enlist in the Union army. As he did so he gazed at the three children sleeping and began to talk of his hopes for their future, one in which they would be free.  The Toltons’ Catholic faith was deeply held and urged them on to action. Martha readily agreed that her husband must go – and that some day they would all be together again, and free. They embraced. With one last look at his children, Peter headed out into the night, to the North, and to war. The couple were never to see each other again; the children were never again to play with their father.  He lies in an unmarked grave near the scene of a battle, having fought and died that his children would one day be free.

Racial prejudice was not confined to the South. When, finally, the Tolton family arrived in the Illinois town of Quincy, they were to live in a segregated neighbourhood.  Nevertheless, Mrs Tolton soon found work and, thereafter, supported her children as best she could. Before anything else, however, the nearest Catholic Church, St. Peter’s, was identified and the family started to worship there. But, racial prejudice was also found there. Northern congregations resented the recent influx of blacks from the South.  The Parish Priest was an Irishman, Brian McGirr, and he was having none of it. He knew that there was a simmering resentment in his congregation. He tackled it head on with sermons reminding all listening that as children of God there was but one Father and whatever you do to the least you do to Him.

Gus grew up quickly. A bright and intelligent boy, with a good heart, aged nine, he was helping support his family by working at a local tobacco factory. His employers liked him; he worked hard and was reliable. The future for the Tolton family began to become clearer when the Civil War finally ended with victory for the North and an end to slavery throughout the United States. Gus was not insensitive to what that ‘victory’ actually meant to many of the freed slaves whom he lived alongside, including his own family: servile work for some, lives of poverty for most.

Just as with his father before him, Gus was an idealist. His idealism was not political though; it was religious. He loved his Catholic faith. The Tolton family had remained regular worshippers at St. Peter’s. Gus participated as much as he could in parish activities: learning to serve Holy Mass, and then going on to be a lay catechist. His human virtues and obvious piety did not go unremarked by the redoubtable Fr. McGirr. One day the Parish Priest saw Gus praying alone in church. That was not an unusual sight; however, that day there was a change. As he looked at the face of the young man he noticed something…Later he asked Gus what he had been praying about. The young man looked embarrassed. For some time previously Fr. McGirr had wanted to ask him a question. That day he did. It shocked Gus because it was on that very subject he had been praying namely, a possible vocation to the priesthood.

Fr. McGirr was keen to progress this proposition. Gus was delighted; for, with all his heart, he wanted to be a priest; it was a sense that had been growing for some years. The formality of applying to a seminary proved, however, more complicated for the young recently freed slave, especially as there had never been a man of his race at any seminary in America. In reply to his letters, excuses were made as to why he could not be accommodated. Religious orders were also tried, but to no avail.

So Gus was left to continue working at the cigar factory. For years he persevered; eventually promoted by his employers, it proved a small consolation. Still, he went to Holy Mass as often as he could; he prayed daily. He waited. During this period, only his mother and Fr. McGirr knew the frustration and sadness that clung to the outwardly smiling Gus Tolton. He refused to be discouraged or to blame anyone. He knew the human heart was weak; he knew too that the Church was unimpeachable in its treatment of all as brothers and sisters in Christ but that she was made up of sinners, and so human frailty was never far away. He continued to pray, to give classes to his fellow parishioners, to wait, and to hope.

He never was to study at a seminary in the United States. After many years he was eventually accepted at a Pontifical university in Rome. On 21 February 1880, Gus left America bound for Europe, destined to be a missionary in Africa. He loved his time in the Eternal City. His fellow students loved him too, and his professors held him in high regard. For the first time in his life he lived in an environment free from racial discrimination.  He thrived. He was an apt scholar. Having picked up German in Quincy, he was to leave Europe with French and Italian mastered, to say nothing of Latin. During these relatively carefree years, the only question was where he would be posted. In the end, to his surprise, he was sent back to where he had come from.  The authorities in Rome could see no reason why he could not minister to his co-religionists there, not least those of his own race.

In July 1886, Fr. Tolton’s homecoming caused a stir. At Quincy station there was a large and noisy crowd to welcome him. Both black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic came to see the young man who had left a much-loved friend and fellow worker and who now returned in a black soutane with a red sash. That day, however, there was one who stood apart from the crowd and quietly watched with tears in her eyes as her son returned to her a priest. He was always conscious that his vocation was as a result of his mother’s example and the Christian home she had provided for him, in spite of everything. In hindsight, however, looking at that day’s generous welcome from all quarters, it was bitter sweet. One could even say it was Fr. Tolton’s Palm Sunday. Despite his open and generous manner, his learning and piety, his hard work and dedication, and above all his priestly heart and its desire for souls, he was to be defamed, insulted and ultimately rejected. Not least by a fellow priest, part inspired by jealousy and part by racial prejudice, that, in the end, caused the young priest’s removal.

Just over three years after his triumphal return, Fr. Augustine Tolton was alone on a night train in a segregated carriage heading to Chicago where he had been assigned to care for that city’s growing black population.

Trusting all to Providence, the same fervour and energy that Fr. Tolton had brought to Quincy was now loosed upon a poor district of Chicago’s south side. With his bishop’s approval, the young priest set about raising funds for a church. Funds were raised and the basis of a great and beautiful church, St. Monica’s, dedicated to the service of the city’s black population was started. He was more than a fundraiser though. He was first and foremost a priest. His congregation was largely poor, ill-educated ex-slaves, with all the resultant ills of depression and violence attending those who, for varying reasons, had given up on life. The young priest worked tirelessly to minister to them, reminding them of the one thing no human power could remove or tarnish: their Catholic Faith.

A visiting priest met Fr. Tolton at this time and stayed with him and his mother – who by then also had come to be live in Chicago as her son’s housekeeper. Unlike the city’s richer parishes, Fr. Tolton lived in reduced circumstances. Nevertheless, the visiting priest found a hearty welcome. He also found a cultured and holy priest, one who complained of nothing and prayed for everything. At the end of the evening, when dinner had finished, the visitor observed how the younger priest took a set of Rosary beads hanging from a nail on a wall nearby and, with his mother beside him, knelt on the stone floor to recite that ancient prayer – just as they always had done, not least when they had arrived frightened and anxious having fled slavery those years previously.

Unexpectedly, when aged only 43, having at last been able to attend a retreat for priests, on returning by train, Fr. Tolton felt unwell. Just outside the train station he had been seen to stumble and then collapse on the city street. As an ambulance was called, a crowd gathered around the unusual sight of a black man dressed in a faded cassock. He was taken to a nearby hospital. Around his bedside were the hospital chaplain who had administered the Last Rites, some nuns praying, and his mother. On 9 July 1897, he died as a priest should – worn out in the care of his flock.

Fr. Tolton had asked to be buried in Quincy. His body was returned there and interred in a simple grave by St. Peter’s Church. It was the same church where he had served Mass and given catechism classes after he had finished his work at the local factory. Some were surprised that he had chosen to be buried in the town that had shunned him. Perhaps they had forgotten that it was there, decades earlier, that a frightened black woman had come with her three small children having fled slavery to find freedom, and where a hope for a better future was born for her and her children.

Laid to rest on that July day in 1897, and having entered into the mysterious freedom of the Children of God where there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither freed nor slave … Fr. Augustine Tolton was now, at last, truly free.

By all accounts, his mother, having continued to work as a priest’s housekeeper died an equally holy death in 1911. St. Monica’s, the church for which her son had expended so much energy and time, was abandoned in 1924 and later raised to the ground.

Augustine ToltonThe Faith is more than bricks and mortar, however, and, in 2011, after an initial investigation at the behest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Fr. Augustine Tolton was declared: Servant of God. The ‘stone’ rejected had become a ‘living stone’, one upon which now future generations would build.

From Slave to Priest: The Inspirational Story of Father Augustine Tolton by Caroline Hemesath S.S.F. (Ignatius Press) is available from Amazon and Ignatius Press.

image: Fr. Tolton portrait, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center. Used with permission. 

Avatar photo


KV Turley writes from London

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage