Nation’s first Black Catholic priest seen as model for persevering in the faith and facing challenging times
Nov 6, 2020
The observance this year of November as Black Catholic History Month comes during a critical time for the United States: the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the physical and financial health and emotional psyches of millions; the nation is more politically divided than ever before; and a renewed effort to fight the sin of racism has swept the country.
Black Catholic History Month calls the faithful to look at those Catholics of African descent who faced similar, if not worse, circumstances and to emulate their holy and faith-filled lives.
Among those holy men and women celebrated this month is Father Augustus Tolton, a late 19th century former slave who is not only this nation’s first known African American Catholic priest, but who also may be this nation’s first African American saint.
Father Tolton, who was ordained in Rome in 1886, is the first publicly identified Black man to be ordained a Catholic priest for the United States. Father Charles Randolph Uncles, a native of Baltimore, in 1891 became the first African American ordained a priest in the United States. He later became one of the founders of the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart (Josephites). Father James Healy, who lived from 1830 to 1900, was a biracial man who presented himself as White. He was ordained in Paris in 1854, and later became bishop of Portland, Maine.
Committed to his dream of being a priest, Father Tolton overcame slavery, hardship and discrimination – from outside and within the Catholic Church – to become a priest ministering not only to other African Americans, but also to those who fought against his ordination.
His cause for canonization was announced by Cardinal Francis George, then the archbishop of Chicago, in 2010 and officially opened in 2011. Father Tolton was declared a “Servant of God” by the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints at the Vatican in 2012 and in 2019, Pope Francis declared him “Venerable.”
Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized U.S. diocesan priest of African descent, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)
“The stamina and perseverance that was conspicuous in Father Tolton's life, especially with difficulties from without, are hallmark virtues to be imitated by all Catholics – that despite the evils we witness in the world today, the virtues of the Christian lifestyle of love of neighbor, justice and peace, continue to be dialectics in a world that seeks the truth,” Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator for the cause of Father Tolton’s canonization, told the Catholic Standard.
Bishop Perry said that “prayer for the beatification and canonization of Father Tolton is most important. Heaven desires to see the interest of the Christian faithful in the power of Tolton's witness.”
Among those taking an active role in Father Tolton’s canonization is Washington Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregroy. While in Chicago, the future cardinal worked closely with Bishop Perry on every step of the process and provided official testimony to the Vatican about his encounters with an elderly woman who recalled as a young girl meeting Father Tolton and attending his funeral.
“Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory has always expressed interest in the sainthood cause of Augustus Tolton, and from time to time asks about its progress,” Bishop Perry said. “He was also a key witness in offering testimony in the early research stage of the diocesan inquiry into the life of Father Tolton.”
Augustus Tolton was born to enslaved Catholic parents in Missouri in 1854. His father escaped to join the Union Army during the Civil War and was later killed. His mother, taking Augustus and his brother with her, later escaped to the free state of Illinois. The family lived in Quincy, Illinois, and attended St. Boniface Church, a parish for German immigrant Catholics. There, the future priest learned to speak German.
Young Augustus worked in a tobacco factory to help support his family and attended Catholic school when he could. In addition to German, he became proficient in Latin, and Gus – as he was affectionately known to his family – frequently served at daily Mass before going to work.
The family later transferred to nearby St. Lawrence Parish where Gus met Irish-born Father Peter McGirr. Father McGirr not only encouraged Tolton in his Catholic education, but also helped foster the young man’s vocation to the priesthood.
Because of rampant racism in the nation and in the Church, no seminary or religious order would accept Tolton. To combat this, Father McGirr enlisted the aid of priests from other parishes in Quincy to privately tutor Tolton. During this time, Tolton worked at a saddle factory, as a church custodian and at a soda bottling plant. He also helped start a Sunday school, providing religious education to Black students.
“His life showed the importance of what it meant to be authentically Black and Catholic,” said Dr. Ansel Augustine, executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington. “He did not bow down to society’s standards of how Black people should think and act. He listened to God’s divine calling on his life and followed it.”
After a long search, the Collegio Urbano, a seminary in Rome run by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, accepted Tolton as a seminarian in 1880. On Holy Saturday, April 24, 1886, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest. During his seminary years, Father Tolton hoped to be sent as a missionary to Africa. That did not happen.
“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor,” Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, then the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, said in 1886 when he assigned Father Tolton to his home. “If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now.”
Father Tolton was assigned to minister to the faithful of Quincy, whom he left six years earlier.
“He (Father Tolton) faced harsh discrimination from his country and his Church. There were bright signs of support as well as challenges that he received from Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni in Rome who decided to assign him to the mission field of his own nation wherein he witnessed to Christ by his gentle but persistent proclamation of the Church’s teachings,” said Cardinal-designate Gregory.
In Quincy, Father Tolton served at St. Joseph Church, where he attracted a large congregation of Black and White Catholics and where he was well known for his kindness and generosity. He was affectionately known as “good Father Gus.”
Facing prejudice from other Catholic priests in the city, the dean of priests ordered Father Tolton to minister only to Black Catholics and that any money donated to his parish from White Catholics would actually belong to White parishes.
“His greatest hurt to him was probably that his own brother priests were against him, but he remained devoted to the Church and to the Blessed Mother,” said Msgr. Raymond East, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington.
With his ministry hindered in Quincy, Father Tolton relocated to Chicago, where he founded St. Monica’s Parish for African American Catholics.
During this time, he attended in 1889 the first Catholic Colored Congress held at St. Augustine Church in Washington. He celebrated Mass for the attendees and later joined about 200 African American Catholics in meeting with President Grover Cleveland.
In an Aug. 29, 2020, live streamed presentation organized by the Tolton Ambassador Corps, a national group committed to promoting Father Tolton's cause for canonization, Cardinal-designate Gregory said the holy priest “is a needed example to a world that profoundly needs not to lose hope as we make every effort to bring about justice in our time as Catholics today.”
Father Tolton worked hard to build his parish and minister to the faithful. He collapsed on the street on July 9, 1897, and died several hours later. The cause of death was listed as heat stroke and uremia. He was 43 years old. Funeral Masses were offered from him at St. Monica Church and his boyhood parish church in Quincy.
“What he does, to me as a priest, is show how to suffer patiently without bitterness and how to proclaim the Gospel even when you are tired and not well and feel persecuted,” Msgr. East said. “He never quit proclaiming the Gospel, in season and out of season. He shows us (priests) what we have to do.”
For the laity, Msgr. East added, “his (Father Tolton’s) messages is that love is stronger than hate.”
“Groups of Catholics looked beyond the color of his skin and saw in him our brother in Christ. Catholics looked beyond any fears, doubt and prejudices they had and saw his light, saw his love,” Msgr. East said. “The Gospel that he preached with such love and such fervor proves that love will conquer all.”
In a 2019 interview with the Catholic News Service, Bishop Perry said the canonization of Father Tolton would “validate the Black Catholic experience and further underscore the multicultural variety that is the Roman Catholic Church, while addressing some of the myths that Blacks have no place in the Catholic Church."
Cardinal-designate Gregory noted, “The sainthood cause for Augustus Tolton is a recognition of this humble man’s successful pursuit of holiness under the most oppressive conditions that the late 19th century imposed upon people of color. He is a great example of ministerial service and dedication for priests of all cultures, races and ages.”