|The face of an angel: Servant of God Augustine Tolton (1854-1897).|
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. Luke 1:52
Augustine Tolton began life on a Missouri plantation as the son of Catholic slaves and the property of Catholic slaveholders, five years before the last slave ship landed on the shores of the United States. After the Civil War began, his father escaped to join the Union Army; years would pass before the family learned that he had died soon afterward. His mother , who had been taken away from her parents as a teenager, feared that her own three children would be taken from her, so she spirited them away to Quincy, Illinois in 1862.
Amid trials and tribulations, and the death of his older brother, Charley, Augustine and his family made a life for themselves in the black district of Quincy. Augustine found a friend and protector in the pastor of his local parish, Fr. Peter McGirr, who saw to it that the devout boy got a good Catholic education. It was Fr. McGirr who discussed with him the possibility of his having a priestly vocation. Augustine found more friends among priests and religious, and distinguished himself by his devotion, his diligence in his daily responsibilities at work and school, and his zeal for souls. However, being black, he could not get into any seminaries in the United States. Eventually, armed with his determination to become a priest and the help of his priestly patrons, Augustine secured a place as a seminarian at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome. On April 26, 1886, Holy Saturday, Augustine Tolton became Father Augustine Tolton, and celebrated his first Mass the next day, Easter Sunday, at St. Peter's Basilica. The man who had begun his life as the legal property of men, and taken himself away from his human masters at the age of eight, now gave himself, body and soul, to his Divine Master and His Church.
At the time Fr. Tolton attended seminary at the Propaganda, part of the deal was that a seminarian had to promise, under oath, to work in any mission field in the world where the Church might send him. Young Augustine expected to be sent to Africa, and even studied the languages and cultures of the various parts of Africa where he might be sent. However, the day before his ordination to the priesthood, he was given the startling news that instead, he was to be sent back to his home diocese. Remembering his escape from slavery and the bad treatment he had received at home on account of his negritude, Augustine received this news with disappointment and misgivings.
But Fr. Tolton put away his apprehension and returned home to Quincy, Illinois. There he rejoined his friends and benefactors from the old days and built up a parish and Catholic school for blacks, St. Joseph's. Although the school was for black children, both whites and blacks attended the church, and the white parishioners helped keep both running with their contributions. Sunday after Sunday, his church was packed.
Unfortunately, racism again reared its ugly head in the person of the dean of the Diocese who, as head of another parish in Quincy, was jealous of the white parishioners who flocked to Fr. Tolton for the Sacraments and for spiritual advice, and with many dollars to contribute to the black apostolate. This priest made life miserable for Fr. Tolton, and succeeded in getting his ministry restricted to only black Catholics.
Eventually, after several appeals to Rome, Fr. Tolton was able to secure permission to move to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where, with financial assistance from Mother Katherine (now St. Katherine) Drexel, he began work on the city's first black parish. Once he had suitable lodgings, he brought his mother and younger sister to live with him. His mother served as housekeeper, sacristan and chorister and was known in the parish as Mother Tolton. Fr. Theodore Warning, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, spent the summer of 1896 with Fr. Tolton while he attended a summer session at the University of Chicago, and gives us a glimpse of his private life:
They lived in a poorly furnished but very clean house. The meals were simple affairs. Father Tolton, his mother and I sat at a table having an oil cloth cover. A kerosene lamp stood in the middle. On the wall directly behind Father Tolton's place hung a large black rosary. As soon as the evening meal was over, Father Tolton would rise and take the beads from the nail. He kissed the large crucifix reverently. We all knelt on the bare floor while the Negro priest, in a low voice, led the prayers with deliberate slowness and with unmistakable fervor.
Fr. Tolton worked hard to minister to his flock: celebrating Mass and the Sacraments; making the rounds of his parish, visiting tenements and hovels; giving religious instruction. He was still a young man, but the hard work sapped his strength. His parishioners noticed that his hands shook when distributing Holy Communion, and that he had to sit down to preach on Sundays.
On Friday, July 9, 1897, walking from the train station to the rectory in 104-degree heat, Fr. Tolton collapsed in the street and was rushed to the hospital with heat stroke and uremia. Later that evening, having received his last Sacraments and surrounded by his mother, his sister, the hospital chaplain and several Sisters of Mercy, Fr. Augustine Tolton passed away. He was 43 years old. In accordance with his wishes, he was given a solemn Requiem Mass at St. Peter's in Quincy, Illinois, the parish of his youth, and buried in the priests' cemetery there. An immense crowd attended the funeral. The monument over his grave 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
Fr. Tolton was not in fact the first black American to become a Catholic priest: the Healy brothers (James Augustine, ordained in 1854, and Patrick Francis, ordained in 1864) were the sons of an Irish father and a mulatto mother, and technically born as slaves. But, whereas the Healy brothers were widely known as Irish, Fr. Tolton was the first recognizably black American to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood and serve as a priest in the United States. On February 24, 2011, Francis Cardinal George issued his edict opening the cause for the canonization of Fr. Augustine Tolton; on February 13, 2012, the Congregation for Causes of Saints granted Fr. Tolton the title "Servant of God."
But Fr. Tolton deserves recognition not merely because he was black and an escaped slave. Fr. Augustine Tolton was practiced in virtues and great holiness: he was a man of devotion, fidelity to the duties of his state in life, zeal for souls, gratitude for benefits received, love for his flock, patience in suffering and immense self-sacrifice. If he is raised to the altar, it will be, and should be, on those grounds.
It would be well to close with Fr. Augustine Tolton's own words, from a speech delivered to the first Black Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C. in 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.