During black history month we should remember the first American black priest, Father John Augustine Tolton. Unfortunately, as with most biographies, the facts are muddled here and there. So I’ll post an unbiased account. It does show that the Church is deeply flawed by the people who make it up and political and social pressures. The Church in America seems to have this highlighted at regular intervals. While this is nothing shocking or new it is something we need to be mindful of and correct at every opportunity. We should be under scrutiny from the world but most of all from ourselves. I certainly hope that we all see someday simply the soul of the woman or man before us. That is all that ever mattered. May our hearts, minds and spirits always look to higher things than the world holds dear and uses to divide us. The heroic and steadfast spirit of Fr. Tolton is of great benefit all those who dream and work in adversity. So everyone!
Former slave Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) overcame daunting obstacles to become the second African-American to be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
Trained in Rome and ordained in 1886, Tolton served in Quincy, Illinois, and later in Chicago until his premature death in 1897 at the age of 43. He was assigned to small, often desperately poor parishes of black Catholics during an era when this religion was viewed with great prejudice in America as the faith of immigrants. Accounts written by his contemporaries describe him as admirably pious as well as a warm, charismatic leader of his flock.
Tolton was born on the first day of April in 1854, in Ralls County, Missouri. Missouri was a slave state at the time, but its populace—a mix of settlers from both northern and southern states—was bitterly divided over the slavery question. Tolton’s mother, Martha Jane Crisley, had come to Missouri with her owners, the Elliotts, a Catholic family from Kentucky. Crisley was a personal maid to Mrs. Elliott and had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, as had her husband, Peter Paul Tolton, another Elliott slave. Their two sons—Augustine and his older brother Charley— were baptized in the Church and given religious instruction by Mrs. Elliott, who served as Augustine’s godmother.
Entered Parish School
When the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) broke out in 1861, Tolton was seven years old. His family either escaped in the uproar that ensued in Missouri as various militias from the Union and Confederate sides battled to control the state, or were freed by the Elliotts. In any event, they made their way to a Union Army encampment near Hannibal, where Peter Paul Tolton decided to enlist in the Union Army. His wife, two sons, and a year-old daughter fled across the Mississippi River to Illinois, a free state. Their father died of dysentery later in the war.
Martha Tolton settled in Quincy, the Illinois city located directly across from Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi. She and her sons worked in a cigar factory which shut down during the winter months, and this hiatus allowed Tolton to begin his first formal schooling. He attended a local public school and then entered the parish school of St. Boniface, one of Quincy’s Roman Catholic churches. Some parishioners objected to worshipping alongside the Toltons, however, and to the youngster’s presence in the classroom with their children, so Martha switched allegiances to St. Lawrence’s, a church run by a sympathetic but strong-willed Irish immigrant priest, Father Peter McGirr, who took sympathy on the family. McGirr installed Tolton in the parish school, ignoring the threats from white parents that they would leave the parish and school, and he became an important mentor to Tolton.
During his teen years, Tolton worked for a local saddle maker, as a custodian at St. Lawrence’s (by then renamed St. Peter’s), and in a factory. He was drawn to the priesthood but was hampered by his lack of formal schooling. At the time, Roman Catholic religious texts and services were written entirely in Latin, and so McGirr arranged for some local Franciscan priests—who had recently established a Catholic college in Quincy—to begin tutoring him in the classical language. Tolton began his evening classes with the friars around 1873, when he was 19, while McGirr began writing letters to seminaries inquiring if they would accept a black candidate for the priesthood.
Mentors Pulled Strings
No seminary would permit Tolton to enroll, not even one specifically aimed at training missionaries for Africa, and so McGirr and one of the Franciscans, a Father Richard, pleaded with contacts they knew in Rome and the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. They assured their colleagues in the church hierarchy that the 26-year-old Tolton displayed an ardent commitment to his faith, attending Mass sometimes twice daily and often stating his intention to serve as a missionary priest in Africa. Their effort bore fruit, and Tolton was admitted to the College of the Propagation of the Faith, the seminary in Rome that trained missionary priests. Tolton’s travel expenses were paid by a fundraising drive spearheaded by McGirr and the other priests in Quincy. The onetime slave arrived in Rome, Christendom’s holiest city, in 1880, entered the seminary, and five years later was ordained at St. John Lateran Church in Rome, a structure whose origins as a church dated back to 314 CE.
Tolton’s superiors debated over his first assignment as a priest. He hoped to be sent to Africa to work as a missionary, feeling certain that despite his new priest’s collar he would still be subject to humiliating racism in the United States, but the decision of church hierarchy was binding, and Tolton complied with it and returned to Illinois. The first Mass he celebrated in the United States was at a church called St. Benedict the Moor in New York City, which served an African-American community of Roman Catholics there. Tolton was feted as a celebrity of sorts, for there was only one other black priest of the faith in the country at the time, Father James Augustine Healy, but he was born to a slave mother and a white father, and was by then serving as Bishop of Portland, Maine.
Back in Quincy, Tolton took over the pastorship of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for Negroes, but the parish struggled financially and had but two dozen members. Still, Tolton emerged as a popular figure in Quincy, and his sermons grew particularly eloquent—enough so that they began attracting more African-American congregants from Protestant churches and even a few whites. His immediate superior in Quincy, however, decreed that integrated church services were forbidden, and some local black ministers reportedly also viewed Tolton as a threat. His fame continued to spread, however, and he was beloved by his parishioners, who called him “Good Father Gus.” Contemporary accounts noted that he played the accordion and had an excellent singing voice.
Took Over Chicago Flock
Tolton found it difficult to find potential Roman Catholic converts in Quincy, but his fame had reached other cities, including Chicago. A struggling congregation of black Catholics there petitioned their archbishop to transfer Tolton to their parish, and he moved there in 1889. He took over a small basement church attached to a larger white parish, but church authorities in the city had recently been given a generous donation of $10,000 from a woman named Anna O’Neil to establish a permanent, bricks-andmortar Roman Catholic church for blacks in the city. Tolton’s mother, sister, and several loyal Quincy parishioners eventually followed him to Chicago, and became part of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church for Negroes, named for the mother of early church theologian St. Augustine, who was African. “These dear people feel proud that they have a priest to look after them,” Tolton wrote in one letter to a benefactor, according to Seattle Times writer Martha Irvine, and he noted that some blacks of other faiths requested his prayers at their sickbed. “That makes me feel that there is great work for me here.”
Tolton also made contact with Mother Katherine Drexel, one of the first American-born Catholics to be canonized a saint after death. Drexel had been born into great wealth but went on to found a religious order and become a generous benefactor to Native American and African-American causes. She provided some additional funds for Tolton’s church, then under construction on the corner of 36th Street and Dearborn Avenue. By then Tolton was well-known among Roman Catholics in America and was an active participant in the Congresses of Black Catholics that took place during this era. In the summer of 1892 he spent a month in Boston at a conference of black Catholics, telling his audience at one event, “the Catholic Church considers [ours] a double slavery, that of the mind and that of the body,” he said, according to a report that appeared in Irish World and American Industrial Liberator newspaper. “She endeavors to free us from both. I was a poor slave boy, but the priests of that Church did not disdain me …. It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and forgive my persecutors.”
St. Monica’s, which had some 600 parishioners at its peak, was still under construction when Tolton—already plagued by poor health—traveled to Kankakee, Illinois, in July of 1897, for a religious retreat. On the way home, he was sickened by the heat on a day when the temperature reached 105 degrees. He died on July 9, 1897, at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, at the age of 43. His funeral services took place in Quincy at St. Peter’s, the church helmed by Father McGirr, who had died four years earlier. The Tolton grave in Quincy’s cemetery became a pilgrimage site for black Catholics.
Tolton’s congregation at St. Monica’s was later folded into that of St. Elizabeth’s, and construction on the church was never completed. The site is near Stateway Park, and across the Dan Ryan Expressway from US Cellular Field, now home of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Though the number of black Catholics in America grew impressively in the years following his death, few Americans of any color know about Tolton’s brief but committed service to the church. One of his contemporary followers is Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “When he was alive, his life would probably not have been considered that newsworthy,” Wilton told Irvine in the Seattle Times. “He lived at a time when to be a person of color automatically meant that you were not a person of significance. So the very fact that he was able to accomplish what he accomplished under severe limitations was to his credit.”
His biography From Slave to Priest has been reprinted and can be bought here.