Fr. Agustus Tolton - First African-American Priest

From Deacon Mark Miller’s Desk

The first black American priest is on track to be named the first black American saint.

Augustus Tolton was born into slavery on a farm near Brush Creek, Missouri. His father Peter Paul and his mother, Mary Jane, belonged to different masters and met when they worked on adjacent farms. Both slaves were raised and baptized as Catholics at the direction of their owners who considered themselves devout Catholics and insisted all their slaves be Catholic as well.

Peter Paul and Mary Jane married in 1861but remained under the ownership of their separate masters. Their first child Charles was born in 1853, followed by Augustus in 1854, and Anne in 1859.

His father Peter Paul escaped to the North in 1961 to join the Union Army but died from dysentery before he could serve in battle. His mother escaped in 1862 and headed for Quincy in the free state of Illinois.

Quincy, population around 25,000, was a "hub" for four lines of the underground railroad. Escaped slaves were a frequent sight.  A colony of about 300 Blacks lived in the Eastern section of Quincy.  Mary Jane found daytime work at the tobacco factory. Both Charlie and Augustus were soon working 10-hour days, six days a week, at the factory as well.

Mary Jane immediately joined St. Boniface church. Mary Jane wanted Augustus to receive an education and enrolled him in the parish school. School life was difficult. The children taunted him because he couldn't read, mimicked his accent, and called him the vilest of names. In less than a month, parish and school leaders ordered him withdrawn from the school. It would be several years before another attempt at school would take place.

When Augustus was 14, Mary Jane enrolled him in the public Colored School. It was a disaster.  Augustus was very tall and extremely black.  Since he could not read, he was placed in a primary grade. Most students made fun of Augustus' skin tone and tormented him because he had no father at home.  Even so, he made significant progress in his learning and social skills.

After her experience at St. Boniface, Mary Jane joined St. Lawrence church. Fr. Peter McGirr was the strong-willed pastor and insisted Augustus attend the parish school. After his first month, he memorized the Latin Mass prayers and was a frequent server for daily Mass.

Augustus' formal learning was minimal: a month at St. Boniface School, two months at the Colored School, and three months each winter for three or four years at St. Peter School. Fr. McGirr and other priests mentored and tutored him privately until St. Francis Solanus College [now Quincy University] accepted him as a special student in 1878. No American seminary would admit a black student, so with the support of all the priests in Quincy, Tolton began to study for the priesthood at the Urban College of the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide in Rome. After six years of study, Tolton was ordained as the first African American Roman Catholic priest on April 24, 1886.

Fr. Tolton expected a missionary assignment to Africa; instead, he was ordered back to his hometown of Quincy to serve the Black community there. His initial efforts to organize a parish failed as both White Catholics [who were ethnic Germans], and Black Protestants [who didn't like him encouraging people from within their community to join a new denomination] were openly hostile towards the new priest.

Ultimately, he was able to form St. Joseph's Catholic Church and School in Quincy.  When a new dean arrived at the parish, he wanted Fr. Tolton to turn away any white worshipers, Fr. Tolton refused.  He moved to Chicago in 1889.

Despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of the city's most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and black Catholic communities. He spearheaded the building of St. Monica Church for black Catholics and worked tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, even to the point of exhaustion. On July 9, 1897, he died of heatstroke on a Chicago street at the age of 43.

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