Father Augustus Tolton, the First Black American Priest, Knew Freedom in Christ

Father Tolton was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in June 2019.

Father Augustus Tolton
Father Augustus Tolton (photo: Public Domain)

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 to freedom in 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 a priest, was “freed.”

Augustine Tolton was born April 1, 1854. His parents were slaves, so he too became one. His parents were Catholics, so he, too, was baptized into his parents’ Holy Faith. His father, Peter, was an honest and good man. Seven years after Augustine — or Gus, as he was known — was born, war broke out between the states. Peter talked to his wife, Martha, about 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 all be free. Martha readily agreed that her husband must go, and that someday they would 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; Peter 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 had to live in a segregated neighborhood. Nevertheless, Mrs. Tolton was soon working and, thereafter, supported her children as best she could. Before anything else, however, the nearest Catholic church, St. Peter’s, was found, 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, Brian McGirr, was an Irishman, and he was having none of it. He tackled it head-on with sermons reminding all listening that, as children of God, they had but one Father.

Gus grew up quickly. A bright and intelligent boy with a good heart, age 9, he was helping support his family by working at a local tobacco factory. His employers liked the hard-working and reliable boy.

The war finally ended with victory for the North and an end to slavery throughout the United States. 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 Father McGirr. One day the parish priest saw Gus praying alone in church. He asked Gus what he had been praying about. The young man looked embarrassed as he had been praying about a possible vocation to the priesthood.

His parish priest was only too delighted to help progress this proposition. Gus was delighted. 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 American seminary. 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.

Gus was left to continue working at the tobacco factory. For years he persevered. Still, he went to Holy Mass as often as he could. He prayed daily. He waited. During this period, only his mother and Father 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 her 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 the Pontifical Urban University, also called the Urbaniana, in Rome. That seminary trained men who would be sent as priests to mission territories throughout the world. On Feb. 21, 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.

After six years of study, Gus was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886.

In July 1886, Father 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. 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 a result of his mother’s example and the Christian home she had provided for him, despite everything.

His first Mass in Quincy was at St. Boniface’s on July 18, 1886. The new priest was later to write of that occasion: “Everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all the others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface, with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.”

In hindsight, however, looking at that day’s generous welcome from all quarters, it was bittersweet. One could even say it was Father 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, which, in the end, caused the young priest’s removal.

Just over three years after his triumphal return, Father 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 fervor and energy that Father Tolton had brought to Quincy was now loosed upon a deprived 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 Father Tolton at this time and stayed with him and his mother, who by then also had come to live in Chicago as her son’s housekeeper. Unlike the city’s richer parishes, Father 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 decades previously.

Unexpectedly, when he was only 43 years old, having at last been able to attend a retreat for priests, on returning by train, Father 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 his mother, some nuns praying, and the hospital chaplain who had administered the Last Rites. On July 9, 1897, he died as a priest should — worn out in the care of his flock. 

Father 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, Father 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 razed to the ground. The Faith is more than bricks and mortar, however, and in 2011, after an initial investigation at the behest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Augustine Tolton was declared a Servant of God. Then, in June 2019, he was declared Venerable by Pope Francis.

The “stone” rejected had become a “living stone,” one upon which now future generations would build.