By Larry Peterson
From the Catholic Hall of Fame: Meet Servant of God; Father John Augustus Tolton. (I consider Catholic saints and those being considered for sainthood as members of the Catholic Hall of Fame. That is strictly my designation because they are the best of the best and we Catholics honor them and try to follow their example.)
On April 1, 1854, Peter Tolton paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to their son and named him Augustus. Augustus (named after his uncle) was baptized in St. Peter's Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augusta's godmother. This was a situation a bit out of the norm, especially for this time in history. Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot who happened to be the "owners" of Augustus' dad and mom. The Tolton family were slaves and their three children, Charley, Augustus and Anne, were born into slavery...slave owners and their slaves, all Catholic. It was a unique situation especially in the mostly Protestant south.
There are varied debates about how the Toltons gained their freedom. The most common story has it that Peter Tolton ran away and joined the Union Army. Then, when the Civil War began, Stephen Elliot gave Martha and her children their freedom. They headed north and, with the help of Union soldiers, crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois which was a 'free' state. They all got jobs at the Herris Tobacco Company which made cigars. Then Charley died and along came Father Peter McGirr, an Irish American priest and pastor of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Quincy, Ill. Augustus Tolton's life was about to change.
Father McGirr had noticed a shabbily dressed African-American boy standing across the street from the church. After three days he went and spoke to the boy. He asked him if he would like to attend school. Augustus answered "YES!" This decision by Father McGirr was quite controversial as most parishioners did not want a black student being taught along with their kids. Father McGirr held firm and insisted that Augustus study there. The young man even began studying with some priests.
Father McGirr had seen something in young Augustus that others did not see. Within a month the boy had advanced to 'second reader' and Father asked him if he would like to receive his first Holy Communion. By summer Augustus was the altar boy for the 5 a.m. Mass. Then Father McGirr asked the young man 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 graduating and with the unwavering support of Father McGirr, Augustus attempted to get into a seminary. He was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. Undaunted, Father McGirr helped young Tolton gain admission to St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy College) in Quincy, Ill. Upon graduating he 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. Here Augustus Tolton 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 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. Thousands greeted him and a brass band played and negro spirituals were sung. People, black and white, lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the new priest dressed in black cassock and wearing the biretta. When Father Tolton arrived at St. Boniface Church hundreds were waiting inside wanting to receive his blessing. His first blessing went to Father McGirr who was by his side. The next day father offered his first Mass and the church was packed while literally thousands of people stood outside. For the moment prejudices were replaced with love of God.
|Servant of God; Father Augustus Tolton|
Father Tolton remained at St. Boniface's for five years. He met with stiff resistance from white Catholics and Protestant blacks when he tried to start a black parish. When he managed to start St. Joseph Parish in Quincy the new "dean" of the parish demanded that he turn all white worshipers away. Father Tolton refused and prayed and persevered, never losing faith.
Father Tolton was transferred to Chicago in 1892 and headed a mission group that met in the basement of St. Mary's Church. This led to him developing 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. Father Tolton was looking forward to having construction at St. Monica's completed so it would be a source of pride for its parishioners. He would not live to see it. 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. He died in the hospital a few hours later from sunstroke. He was 43 years old. Apparently he had been ill for sometime and had never said anything to anyone. The heat wave did him in. His community was shocked and stunned. They had lost a dear friend. Father Tolton is buried at St. Mary's Cemetery near Quincy, Ill.
On March 2, 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 is now designated officially as Servant of God. We might ask Father Tolton's intercession to help us with our own individual prejudices.