Meet Venerable Father Augustus Tolton
By Larry Peterson
This is about a man who was born a slave in Missouri and became the first African-American ordained a Catholic priest in the United States. I wish that not only the people of Missouri but folks all across America would learn about him. He was a man whose goodness shined like a brilliant star inspiring others by his gentle and caring example. Say “Hello” to Augustus Tolton.
On April 1, 1854, Peter Tolton paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to her second son. They named him Augustus (after his uncle), and the baby was baptized soon after in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augustus’ godmother.
It was a situation a bit out of the ordinary at the time. That was because Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot, who happened to be the “owner” of Augustus’ mom and dad. The Tolton family was slaves, and their three children, Charley, Augustus, and Anne, were born into slavery. Slave owners and their slaves, all Catholic. It was quite uncommon, especially in the mostly Protestant south.
Augustus was seven years old when the Civil War began. Stephen Elliot permitted Peter Tolton to head north, and he supposedly was able to join the Union Army. A bit later, Elliot gave Martha and her children their freedom too. They headed north, and with the help of Union Soldiers crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois, which was a “free” state. They settled in the town of Quincy.
Martha and her oldest boy, Charley, were able to get jobs at the Harris Tobacco Company, which made cigars. Augustus looked after his little sister, Anne. He also began spending a lot of time standing across the street from St. Peter’s Church, which was not far from the rooms where they lived. Augustus Tolton’s life was about to change.
The pastor of St. Peter’s was an Irish American priest, Father Peter McGirr. Father McGirr had noticed a shabbily dressed African-American boy spending an excessive amount of time near the church. After several days had gone by, Father walked across the street and introduced himself to the boy. After a brief conversation, Father asked him, ” Well, now lad, do you go to school?”
“Would you like to go to school?”
Augustus jumped into the air and yelled, “YES Sir, YES!”
Father McGirr and Augustus headed to St. Peter’s. The priest’s move was very controversial, and most of the white parishioners did not want a black student studying along with their children. Father McGirr held firm and insisted that Augustus study at St. Peter’s. He got permission from Augustus’ mom, who was shocked that this had happened to her son. Augustus Tolton’s life had been placed on the road to his destiny.
The Holy Spirit may have moved Father McGirr because he saw something in Augustus that others did not. Within one month, the boy had moved on to the ” second reader.” Father approached Augustus and asked him if he would like to receive his First Holy Communion. He did, and by the summer Augustus was the altar boy for the 5 a.m. Mass.
After several years Father McGirr asked Augustus if he would like to become a priest. He told him it would take about 12 years of hard study and dedication. Augustus said, “Let us go to the church and pray for my success.”
After graduation and with the unwavering support of Father McGirr, Augustus attempted to get into a seminary. It was the 1870’s, and prejudice was almost taken for granted. Augustus was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. But the young man did not despair, lose hope, or begin to get bitter. On the contrary, he continued to pray, and his prayers, combined with the fearless determination of Father McGirr, enabled him to gain admission to St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy College) in Quincy, Ill.
Augustus proved to be a brilliant student and, upon graduation, was accepted into the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. Founded by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century, this was a training ground for missionaries. It was here that Augustus became fluent in Italian as well as studying Greek and Latin. In 1886, at the age of 32, Augustus Tolton was ordained to the priesthood in Rome. He was the first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States.
Newspapers from across the country told the story of the former slave now ordained as a Catholic priest. When Father Tolton arrived back in Quincy, he was greeted as a hero. A brass band played, and Negro spirituals were sung as thousands of people, both white and black, sang together, lined the streets together, and held hands together as they waited to catch a glimpse of the former slave boy who had grown up to be a Catholic priest.
Father Tolton walked down the avenue dressed in his cassock and wearing the biretta. When he arrived at St. Boniface Church, hundreds were crowded inside, wanting to receive his blessing. His very first blessing went to Father McGirr, who was still by his side. The next day Father Tolton said his first Mass at the packed church, while thousands of others stood outside. For these few days, prejudices in Quincy, Illinois, were non-existent. They had been replaced by love of God instead.
Father Tolton remained at St. Boniface’s for five years. He did meet with stiff resistance as prejudice once again reared its ugly head. But Father persevered and managed to start St. Joseph’s Parish in Quincy. In 1892 he was transferred to Chicago and headed a mission group that met in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. The work at St. Mary’s led him to develop the Negro National Parish of St. Monica’s Catholic Church.
He was such a kind, caring man that he came to be known as “Good Father Gus.” The church grew quickly and soon had over 600 parishioners. His next plan was to oversee new construction at St. Monica’s, which had begun to accommodate the swelling numbers of parishioners. He would not live to see it.
Father Tolton had been ill for quite some time and had never told anyone. On a hot July day in 1897, with the temperature at 105 degrees, Father Tolton was returning from a retreat in Bourbonnais, Ill. When he stepped from the train, he collapsed. Taken to the hospital, he died a few hours later from sunstroke. Father Gus was only 43 years old when he died. The community was shocked at the loss of their dear friend. Father Tolton was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy.
In March 2010, Cardinal George of Chicago announced that he was beginning the cause for canonization for Father Tolton. On February 24, 2011, the Catholic Church officially began the formal introduction of the cause for sainthood. Father Augustus Tolton was then formally designated as “Servant of God.”
Good Father Gus was declared a man of “heroic virtue” by Pope Francis on June 12, 2019. He is now known as Venerable Augustus Tolton. He is currently under consideration for Beatification.
Venerable Augustus Tolton, please pray for us all.
Copyright©Larry Peterson 2020 (updated from original of 2016)