Father Augustus Tolton, born the son of slaves on April 1, 1854, became the first priest from the United States who was recognizably African American. After narrowly escaping slavery in Missouri with his mother and siblings, he reached maturity in Quincy, Illinois. There, the local pastor accepted him into the parish school despite opposition from parishioners.
Tolton knew God was calling him to be a priest, but since no American seminary would accept him, he was forced to work arduous, low-level jobs instead. Meanwhile, he pressed on toward his calling.
Tolton was accepted to seminary in Rome and was ordained in 1886. Though he expected to serve as a missionary in Africa, he soon found out that he was destined for service back in the United States.
“America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honor,” said Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. “If America has never seen a Black priest, it has to see one now.”
Father Tolton was sent back to Quincy, where he was met with racial prejudice by laity and clergy alike. He was maligned and mistreated by many, including his own brother priests.
Father Tolton accepted this cross. But given the situation, he was invited to minister in Chicago in 1889 after requesting a transfer there. This request was not so much made to make his life easier as to allow his ministry to be more effective.
In Chicago, Father Tolton was indefatigable in his efforts to serve a growing Black Catholic community and establish St. Monica Church for Black Catholics. This work, combined with a good deal of travel for speaking engagements on the plight of his people, took a toll on the priest. After returning from a retreat by train, Father Tolton collapsed on a Chicago street corner in record-breaking heat on July 9, 1897, and he died shortly thereafter.
Father Tolton’s legacy has loomed large in the 12 decades since his death. Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, the vice-postulator of Father Tolton’s cause, writes that Father Tolton “rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another.”
Father Tolton, the bishop added, “persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”
–taken from Angelus News
Read pages 53-64 of Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood. Writing and reflecting on Venerable Augustus Tolton’s life, Michael Heinlein and Bishop Joseph N. Perry help look at suffering through God’s eyes.