The story of America’s first black Catholic priest begins with a miraculous escape from slavery in 1862.
Augustus Tolton, who is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church, was born enslaved in Missouri in April 1854. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, had him baptized Catholic, the faith of the family that owned them.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Peter Tolton ran away to join the Union Army. Months later, Martha Tolton also fled with her three children, Augustus, Charles and Anne — a bid for freedom that nearly ended in capture.
The Toltons were chased through the woods by Confederate slave catchers.
“We stayed hidden in the bushes, afraid to breathe,” recounted actor Jim Coleman, who is starring as Augustus Tolton in the one-man play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” which is being performed at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria during a national tour. “They dragged us out. But like angels coming down from heaven, we saw Union soldiers. They smuggled us into a dilapidated row boat and pushed out into the mighty Mississippi River.”
The Confederate soldiers continued to shoot at the boat, as Augustus’s mother rowed across the muddy river.
“Bullets whizzed by our heads. We crouched down in bottom of boat,” the actor playing Augustus says. “That is when our Mama showed us what she was made of. Mother courageously rowed that boat. With each stroke, she prayed, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.’ ”
When they made it safely across the river to freedom in Illinois, Martha Tolton broke down and cried. In Illinois, they got directions to the small settlement of Quincy, where they joined a Catholic church. Tolton’s mother took him to a Catholic school and asked the priest to allow Augustus to study there.
“He was initially welcomed into one of the Catholic schools,” Coleman said in an interview, “but he was kicked out because parishioners didn’t want a negro child in the school.”
A priest, Father Peter McGirr, was impressed by Tolton’s intelligence and mentored him, teaching him Latin and Greek. He encouraged Tolton to enter the priesthood.
“McGirr promised Augustus he would be educated,” Coleman said. “He wrote letters in the U.S. to get Augustus into a seminary. None accepted him because of his race. Then Father McGirr wrote letters to Rome, saying this individual was brilliant.”
In 1880, Tolton was sent to Rome, where he entered the seminary at Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide. Six years later, on April 24, 1886, at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest.
“Pope Leo XIII delegated Cardinal Giovanni Parocchi to officiate at the ceremony,” according to a biography by the organization seeking sainthood for Tolton.
Tolton celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “It was April 25, 1886, Easter Sunday,” according to the Tolton canonization biography. “Pilgrims and tourists must have wondered when they saw a red-robed cardinal taking his place beside a black priest.”
Tolton thought he would be sent as a missionary to Africa, but the Vatican ordered him to return to the United States. “It was said that I would be the only priest of my race in America and would not likely succeed,” Tolton wrote, according to the Catholic News Herald.
But he did, becoming a popular pastor of St. Joseph Church in Quincy.
“He was loved,” Coleman said. “But the problem was, he was taking parishioners from white churches, even protestant churches. Everybody wanted to see this priest who studied in Rome. They ran him out of Quincy.”
In 1891, he was sent to Chicago, where he opened St. Monica’s Church, built with donations from philanthropists Anne O’Neill and Katherine Drexel. (Drexel became a saint in 2000.)
“It is the first Catholic church in the city to be built by colored people,” a Jan. 15, 1894, article in the Chicago Tribune reported. “More than this, it is the first church of the kind constructed in this State and probably the only Catholic church in the West that has been built by colored members of that faith for their own use.”
“Father Tolton’s success at ministering to black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Church,” according to the Catholic News Herald. Augustus Tolton was known for “eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice, and his talent for playing the accordion.”
He was described in one newspaper article as “a fluent and graceful talker and has a singing voice of exceptional sweetness, which shows to good advantage in the chants of the high Mass. It is no unusual thing for many white people to be seen among his congregation.”
But just three years after St. Monica’s dedication, Tolton was on his way to the church on a hot July day in 1897 when he fell to the sidewalk, apparently suffering from heatstroke. He died at Mercy Hospital in Chicago at the age of 43.
More than 113 years after his death, Cardinal Francis George, who was the archbishop of Chicago, announced the push to make Tolton a saint.
In 2012, Tolton was granted the title “servant of God” by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, allowing the Archdiocese of Chicago to proceed with an inquiry into his life and virtues.
Tolton is one of six African Americans and three former slaves being considered for sainthood — a process that can take decades.
Two miracles credited to Tolton’s intercession have been sent to Rome for evaluation, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry told Chicago Catholic, the newspaper for the archdiocese, earlier this year. He is the priest designated by the archdiocese to lead the canonization effort.
“We’re hoping and our fingers are crossed and we’re praying,” Perry said, “that at least one of them might be acceptable for his beatification.”
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