Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Father Augustine Tolton, also known as Augustus, is pictured in a photo from an undated portrait card. Born into slavery in Missouri, he was ordained a priest April 24, 1886. He served as pastor at St. Joseph Church in Quincy, Ill., and later established St. Monica’s Church in Chicago. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)

Black Americans on the road to sainthood: From slave to priest

BY F. VERONICA WILHITE, OFFICE OF BLACK CATHOLIC MINISTRY

This month we remember the Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton who was born a slave in Brush Creek, Mo., on April 1, 1854 and who overcame numerous obstacles to become the first Black American ordained to the priesthood. His father, a Union Soldier, was killed in a Civil War battle when Augustus was seven years old – the same year that his family escaped through the Underground Railroad to Quincy, Ill. He and his siblings were enrolled in Catholic schools there, but experienced such intense hostility and racism that his mother withdrew them and Augustus went to work in a tobacco factory to help support the family.

By the time Augustus was 14, Sister M. Herlinde Sick, SSND – who later founded a school for Black children – began tutoring him and found him to be an apt student who also became an altar boy and expressed a deep commitment to the faith. It was at the time of receiving his First Communion at age 16 that he expressed his desire to serve as a priest. Because he displayed intellectual aptitude and spirituality, the parish priest recommended that Augustus enter the seminary and received the agreement of the diocese to fund his training. After numerous rejections and a long search for a seminary that would accept a Black student, he was finally enrolled in the Pontifical Urban College in Rome in 1880, which led to his ordination in 1886 and the celebration of his first Mass on Easter Vigil April 24, 1886 at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. 

Though Fr. Tolton expected to serve as a missionary to Africa he was assigned to the United States. As noted by the cardinal who ordained him: “America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honor; we will see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a Black priest, it has to see one now.”

After his return to Illinois, diocesan records indicate that Fr. Tolton built a thriving, integrated parish with 1,500 white and Black members, and his sermons drew parishioners from other dioceses – so many, in fact, that the diocese cut funds from the parish and declared that Fr. Tolton should no longer minister to white parishioners. After years of perseverance in the face of this discrimination, Fr. Tolton requested a transfer to Chicago, where he ministered to the growing Black Catholic community, pastoring the first Black parish in the city. St. Monica’s congregation had grown from 100 to 600 members, drawing both white and Black parishioners, and Fr. Tolton made great efforts to minister to the poor and oppressed of Chicago.

On July 9, 1897, Fr. Tolton arrived in Chicago by train from a retreat for priests. On his way home he collapsed on the street and was taken to the hospital, where he died of a heat stroke. Prior to his death, his parishioners had taken notice of his fatigue that displayed itself in his hands when giving Holy Communion and his need to sit when celebrating Mass.

On July 12, Fr. Tolton’s solemn Requiem Mass was offered at St. Monica Church. In 2010, Fr. Tolton’s canonization was inaugurated by the late-Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, of Chicago. On June 11, 2019, Pope Francis advanced the Cause for Sainthood of the Servant of God Augustus Tolton by signing a decree issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. 

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago — vice postulator of Tolton’s canonization cause — defines his legacy: “His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed and accepted. He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.” Bishop Perry describes Fr. Tolton as a patron saint of inclusion. 

Born this month and ordained in Rome during the Easter season, this holy person’s life can spark thoughts of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Fr. Tolton knew suffering and rejection but he persevered through it all with a gentleness of spirit, an unrelenting faith and service to God’s people. 

More information is available from the Archdiocese of Chicago: https://tolton.archchicago.org/about/tolton-canonization and “From Slave to Priest” by Sister Caroline Hemesath, SSF.

F. Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
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