Living Well, According to Father Tolton

Deacon offers moving meditation on a life of faith.

America’s first black priest, Venerable Augustus Tolton, ‘serves as a role model for those who seek to be configured more perfectly to Christ.’
America’s first black priest, Venerable Augustus Tolton, ‘serves as a role model for those who seek to be configured more perfectly to Christ.’ (photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Springfield)


By Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers

EWTN Publishing, 2019

176 pages, $18.95

EWTN Item No: 80589

To order: or
(800) 854-6316


If one is looking for an exhaustive biography of the probable future saint Father Augustus Tolton, America’s first black priest, that book is not the new work by the inimitable Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers.

But it is a timely read, given Pope Francis declared Father Tolton “Venerable” on June 12, taking Father Tolton one step closer to being declared a saint. As a “Venerable,” Father Tolton has been recognized as having lived a life of heroic virtue.

“Today’s news is not only exciting for Catholics across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, but also for the entire Christian world,” Bishop Thomas John Paprocki said in a diocese press release. “Father Tolton’s story, from slave to priest, is an incredible journey that shows how God has a plan for all of us. Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice and racism to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after. He carried his crosses in life quietly and heroically. ... His life truly shows that all of us — no matter how ordinary we think we are — can do extraordinary things and live a heroic Christian life.”

Father Tolton’s cause of sainthood began in 2003, and he was given the title “Servant of God” by the Holy See in 2011. If a miracle can be attributed to Father Tolton’s prayerful intercession, he would then be declared “Blessed” by the Pope. Another miracle would lead him to sainthood. Officials in Rome are currently reviewing at least one potential miracle.

“It’s my hope we all see the heroic legacy of Father Tolton and try to live a life like his: one of service to others, refusing to let the evils of the world ruin his mission of introducing Jesus to others, and meeting hatred with love,” Bishop Paprocki said in his statement. “We are all called to be a saint — Father Tolton’s way of life gives us the perfect road map.”

If one wants the very best kind of hagiography about this holy priest on the road to sainthood, Father Augustus Tolton is a good read.

Having previously read the seminal work on Father Tolton’s life, Sister Caroline Hemesath’s From Slave to Priest, I questioned why another biography was needed on this amazing man. My skepticism only grew after reading Chapter 1, in which Deacon Burke-Sivers recounts Father Tolton’s entire life story, drawing mainly from Sister Caroline’s biography. Only gradually did it dawn on me that the deacon’s intent in this current offering is not to give a new biography.

Rather, in a way too few hagiographies do, Deacon Burke-Sivers aims to give us a deeply rich and often profoundly moving meditation not only on Father Tolton’s life but on how that life explicates crucially essential elements of the Catholic faith.

He also prompts deep reflections on pertinent issues, not the least of which is race.

Indeed, his contemplation on the complexities of racial relations, both in the Venerable’s time and our own, is profoundly challenging. The deacon’s reflection on the Good Samaritan vis-à-vis race and sin is particularly provocative.

From race, Deacon Burke-Sivers moves on to the topic of families. He uses the example of Father Tolton’s troubled life to show how, regardless of the adversity we face, all of us can build and maintain a faith-filled family life with a rock-solid foundation in Jesus Christ.

The holy priest’s father was the slave Peter Paul Tolton who was determined to give his wife and three children a better life. Thus he escaped his master’s farm and joined a brigade of black men in the Union Army. Sadly, he died in battle when Augustus was just 7. Nonetheless, the example he gave his son and two other children had a lasting impact.

So did the witness provided Augustus by his mother Martha Jane. When word reached her that her husband had died in battle, she escaped to Quincy, Illinois, via the Underground Railroad.

There she built a new home for her family, despite the deep racism of some of Quincy’s residents, including many of its Catholics.

She and her children never questioned their dignity, and the persecution their fellow parishioners and even some priests inflicted upon them actually strengthened their family bond. Deacon Burke-Sivers writes that to follow their model and thus make our own families strong enough to withstand our own challenges, we must develop deep, committed prayer lives. We must come to a profound understanding of what and who the Eucharist is.

We must strenuously work to become living icons of the Holy Trinity, which is in itself a family, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the last of whom is often described as the personified love that exists between the Father and the Son. Do our families come close to that? If not, the deacon asks, what are we waiting for? The time to act, he exhorts, is now.

Especially valued in the book is the author’s admonition for parents to not simply “delegate” their children’s religious formation “to catechists, teacher or coaches.” While Mrs. Tolton had the great support of many good priests and religious, she also spent hours reading Scripture to her children and teaching them the truths of our holy faith. One could even say that she was her son’s first seminary professor. She was a poorly educated former slave, but she gave what she had. Moreover, recognizing what she didn’t know about the faith, she constantly sought to increase her understanding of the faith through learning so that she could pass on even more of that understanding — and love — of the faith to her son. Must we who have so many blessings of education and freedom not do likewise?

From family, the deacon moves on to prayer, namely, how to practice and thus use prayer to enhance and better one’s life. Deacon Burke-Sivers’ meditation on the beatitudes is especially rich, and he draws upon not only the example of Father Tolton but of several saints, well-known and not well-known. This portion of the book proved especially thought-provoking and prompted questions and realizations that were not always comfortable but which are absolutely necessary if one is to grow in Christ.

“In the Beatitudes,” Burke-Sivers writes, “Christ reveals the people we are all called to be. These are the qualities that made the saints and that will make us saints as well. The Beatitudes form a foundation for holiness and make clear what is expected of a follower of Christ. … Saints are people who have responded generously to the love of God showered upon them. They have survived the pains and challenges of this world; they have lived the Beatitudes …”

His chapter on the culture of life and the meaning of human suffering is a poignant reminder that we were not made for this world.

It also represents a call to do things in and for Christ.  

In these pages, the deacon gives so many wonderful and practical suggestions on how to grow in holiness and to take our families, friends and culture with us.

He concludes with a quiet reflection on “Freedom in God’s Mercy,” taking readers with him on a journey into the humbling, steadfast love God has for each of us.

Along the way, he points out some of the more prominent shibboleths and canards of our age. He responds to these in a compelling way that any reader of like mind will find useful.

This book is an unconventional recitation of and meditation on a likely saint’s life. Its effect will be to help many who read it in their striving to become saints themselves.

“We are all called to holiness in our own situations,” said Bishop Joseph Perry, of the Archdiocese of Chicago and vice postulator for the cause of Venerable Father Tolton, in the diocesan press release.

“We each have a mission, taken with the cross in life, to make a difference, to win this world for God and to get to heaven. Father Tolton leaves us a shining example of what Christian action is all about, what patient suffering is all about in face of life’s incongruities. He was a bright light in a difficult period of this nation’s history. His life and ministry still speak to the problems of our day where communities, neighborhoods and churches continue to evidence separations among race and class and the disturbances that erupt periodically from these social contradictions. Father Tolton is a model for priests and laity who live and work in these situations while they strive to work for harmony and peace among all regardless their color, their origin, their language.”

Deacon Burke-Sivers would wholeheartedly concur with Bishop Perry’s summation of this holy priest’s life. As the deacon notes in his book, “The greatest legacy of Fr. Augustine Tolton is not simply that he was a pioneer, the first black American priest in the United States. Yes, he was that — but he was so much more! Fr. Tolton loved and served the Lord with great fervor and intensity. He knew that God’s love is so immense, its power so limitless, its embrace so tender and intimate that Love Himself brings forth life. Fr. Tolton was a loving testimony to God’s creative, life-giving work. Fr. Tolton serves as a role model for those who seek to be configured more perfectly to Christ.”

Brian O’Neel writes from West Virginia. Register staff contributed to this story.