Did you know that the first ordained, African-American Priest was born a Slave?

Meet Venerable Father Augustus Tolton

Father Augustus Tolton                                                    public domain

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?”

“No, sir.”

“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)

 

 


Rejected by two Religious Orders, she started her own. She became known as the “Mother of the Poor.”

St. Angela of the Cross                                      en.wikipedia.org

By Larry Peterson

She was born in Seville, Spain, on January 30, 1846. Three days later, she was baptized at the Church of Santa Lucia and given the name Maria de Los Angeles, which means Mary of the Angels. But they called her Angela. The child received her First Holy Communion when she was eight years old and her Confirmation at the age of nine.

Angela came from a simple family of very modest means. Her dad was trained as a woodcarver, but after moving to Serville took a job as the cook at a Trinitarian monastery. His wife, Josefa, took the job as a seamstress and house cleaner. Together they had thirteen children, of which only six survived. Angela’s schooling was limited as it was for most girls of her social class. When she was twelve years old, she went to work in a shoe factory to help the family with more income. She would work there virtually full time for the next 17 years.

The supervisor at the shoe factory was a devout Catholic woman by the name of Antonia Maldonado. She always encouraged the employees to pray together, to recite the Rosary, and to learn about the many saints in the church. It was through Antonia that Angela, at the age of sixteen,  would meet Father Jose Torres y Padilla, a priest from the Canary Islands. Father Jose would become Angela’s confessor and a powerful influence in her life;.

Angela had felt a calling to religious life, and when she turned nineteen, she decided it was time to answer that call. She applied to the Discalced Carmelites in Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, she was turned away because of poor health. She turned to Father Padilla, who advised her to keep praying and to begin working with the poor, especially those suffering from Cholera, which was quite prevalent at the time. Angela followed this advice and started her service to the poor.

In 1868 Angela again attempted to gain acceptance to convent life. This time she applied to the Daughters of Charity of Seville. Despite her frail health, she was accepted. The Sisters tried to nurse Angela back to full health but were unable to. They sent her to Cuenca and then to Valencia, but neither place helped. She had to leave the order and returned home, going back to work in the shoe factory.

Angela continued working in the shoe factory and held on to her dream to become a religious. She worked and served the poor. She prayed and prayed, and in1873, she received a vision. In it, she was shown that her calling was to help the poorest of the poor. She began her mission that very day and also started a journal recording what she believed was God’s message to her.

Quickly other women were drawn to her, but it was on August 2, 1875, that she chose three ladies who were to begin a new order with her. They were Josefa de la Pena, who was quite wealthy, and Juana Maria Castro and Jauna Magadan. They were both poor, just like Angela.

The order they founded was called the Congregation of the Cross. Its mission would be to work with the sick, the poor, orphans, and the homeless. They would provide food, medicine, clothing, housing, and whatever else they could to help those in their care. The money Josefa had was used to rent a small room and a working kitchen. Other funds were strictly from alms and donations. They opened a 24-hour support service for the poor, and, in 1877, a new site was opened in another Seville province.

The Archbishop of Seville, Luis de la Lastra y Cuesta, gave his official approval to the new order on April 5, 1876. Father Torres died in 1877 and was succeeded by his protege, Jose Maria Delgado. Angela was installed as the Mother Superior of the Congregation of the Cross and became known as Mother Angela of the Cross. She was lovingly known to the people as the “Mother of the Poor.” She died on March 2, 1932, in Seville. She was 86 years old.

At the time of her passing 23 convents had already opened. By the year 2008, there were over 1000 sisters in the order serving the poor all over the world.

Pope St. John Paul II  canonized Mother Angela on May 4, 2003. Her feast day is March 2.

St. Angela of the Cross, please pray for us.

copyright©Larry Peterson 2020