By Larry Peterson
Honoring Black History Month; 2019
April 1, 1854, Brush Creek, Missouri: Peter Tolton, paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to their second son. They named him Augustus (after his uncle) and, before the month was out, the baby was baptized in nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augustus’ godmother.
The baptism of Augustus was a bit unusual. That was because Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot, who happened to be the “owner” of Augustus’ mom and dad. Mr. and Mrs. Tolton were slaves and their three children, Charley, Augustus, and Anne, were born into slavery. The slave master made sure his slaves were baptized and his family and his slaves were all Catholic.
After the Civil War began, the Toltons, seeking freedom, ‘ran away’. Peter joined the Union army and the rest of the family headed north. With the help of Union soldiers, Martha Jane and her children arrived in Illinois, a “free” state. Martha Jane and the children settled in Quincy, Illinois. Young Augustus Tolton, aged eight or nine, was soon to meet Father Peter McGirr.
Martha Jane and her oldest boy, Charley, were hired by a local tobacco company to make cigars while Augustus, charged with taking care of his little sister, began spending a lot of time across the street from St. Peter’s Church. The pastor was Father McGirr.
Father McGirr, had noticed Augustus and his sister and, after a while, approached the boy. He introduced himself and asked a frightened Augustus if he would like to go to school. Augustus was thrilled with the prospect and said, “YES!”
Most of the white parishioners did not want a black student being taught along with their white children. Father McGirr held fast and firm and insisted the boy study at St. Peter’s. Martha Jane was shocked that her boy had been offered such an opportunity and agreed for him to go. Augustus Tolton’s life journey had been set before him even though he did not know it.
Father McGirr may have been moved by the Holy Spirit because he saw something in Augustus that others did not. The boy received his First Holy Communion, became an altar boy and proved to be a brilliant student. By the 1870s, when prejudice was basically taken for granted, Father McGirr was attempting to enroll Augustus in a seminary so he might study for the priesthood. The young black man was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. But a tenacious and determined Father McGirr never gave up.
They both continued praying and trying and finally, Father McGirr secured admission for Augustus to St. Francis Solanus College located right there in Quincy. Upon graduation, Augustus was accepted into the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. 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 been ordained 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 church which was once again packed inside while thousands of others stood outside. For these few days prejudices in Quincy, Illinois, were non-existent. The Golden Rule—Ruled.
Father Tolton had been ill for quite some time and had never told anyone. On a steaming 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. He was only 43 years old. His community was shocked. They had lost a dear friend. “Good Father Gus”, as he was lovingly called by his parishioners, was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy.
If 130 years ago white people and black people could join hands in song to honor a black Catholic priest, why could something like this not happen again? Maybe instead of a Ferguson, Missouri we could have a replay of a Quincy, Illinois, circa 1889. With God, anything is possible. We should pray to Good Father Gus for this. Who knows, maybe a new Augustus Tolton will one day step from the shadows to help us once again achieve such a moment.
Father Augustus Tolton aka “Good Father Gus” was declared a “Servant of God” on February 13, 2012, placing the priest on the road to canonization.
©copyright Larry Peterson 2016