Juneteenth and the Life of the First Black American Catholic Priest

No American seminary would accept Tolton because of his race, so he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31, becoming the first African American ordained as a priest.

Venerable Augustus Tolton.

On June 19, the United States commemorates the anniversary of the 1865 order that gave freedom to enslaved African Americans in Texas, issued two months after the Civil War ended. More commonly known as “Juneteenth,” it became a federal holiday in 2021 and serves as a fitting day to remember the first Black Catholic priest in the U.S. whose cause has been opened for canonization — Venerable Augustus Tolton.

Tolton was born into slavery in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri, on April 1, 1854, to Catholic parents Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley.

Peter Paul escaped shortly after the beginning of the Civil War and joined the Union Army, dying shortly thereafter. In 1862, Augustus Tolton, along with his mother and two siblings, escaped by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. 

“John, boy, you’re free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord,” Tolton’s mother reportedly told him after the crossing.

Tolton began to attend St. Peter’s Catholic School, an all-white parish school in Quincy, Illinois, thanks to the help of Father Peter McGirr. The priest went on to baptize Tolton, instruct him for his first holy Communion, and encouraged his vocation to the priesthood.

No American seminary would accept Tolton because of his race, so he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31, becoming the first African American ordained as a priest.

Tolton returned to the U.S. where he served for three years at a parish in Quincy. From there he went to Chicago and started a parish for Black Catholics — St. Monica Parish. He remained there until he died unexpectedly while on a retreat in 1897. He was just 43 years old. 

During his short but impactful life, Tolton learned to speak fluent English, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and African dialects. He was also a talented musician with a beautiful voice. He helped the poor and sick, fed the hungry, and helped many discover the faith. He was lovingly known as “Good Father Gus.”

Tolton’s cause was opened by the Archdiocese of Chicago on Feb. 24, 2011, making him a Servant of God, and then on June 12, 2019, Pope France declared him Venerable, which is the second step toward canonization.

Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, announcing to the committee deciding where Tolton would be sent after his ordination in 1886 and who overruled the previous decision to send him to Africa, reportedly said the following:

“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now.”

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, it could not be implemented in states still under Confederate control, and enforcement of the Proclamation relied upon the advance of Union troops. It wasn’t until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that more than 250,000 enslaved African Americans were freed by executive decree.

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