Augustus Tolton: The Runaway Slave Who Became a Catholic Priest in the US

Tolton was an African-American born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri, around 1854. During the Civil War, he fled to Quincy, Illinois, with his family and eventually became the first publicly recognized Black Catholic priest in the United States.

Augustus Tolton: The Runaway Slave Who Became a Catholic priest in US

Tolton’s early years were shaped by the harsh realities of slavery. Born on April 1, 1854, in Bush Creek, Missouri, he entered the world as Augustine Tolton, baptized into a Catholic family owned by a white Roman Catholic household. His mother, Martha Jane Chisley, was herself a devout Catholic who had been inherited as part of a wedding dowry, a cruel testament to the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

According to accounts that Tolton told friends and parishioners, his father first managed to escape to join the Colored Troops in the Union Army during the tumult of the Civil War. Later, with the aid of sympathetic Union soldiers, Tolton’s mother ran away as well with her children, crossing the treacherous waters of the Mississippi River into Illinois, the Free State. Their escape marked the beginning of a new chapter filled with both challenges and opportunities.

Settling in Quincy, Illinois, Tolton and his family found employment at a tobacco factory, where they toiled to make ends meet. His first attempt to enter Catholic school, at St. Boniface downtown, was met with racist opposition, and he withdrew within a month.

Augustus Tolton: The Runaway Slave Who Became a Catholic priest

Tolton’s quest for education and spiritual enlightenment faced formidable obstacles. Despite encountering resistance and racist opposition, he found an ally in Father Peter McGirr, an Irish Catholic priest, who recognized Tolton’s potential and embraced him as a pupil. Through Father McGirr’s intervention, Tolton gained admission to St. Lawrence’s Catholic School, where he immersed himself in learning and spiritual growth. Although, many of McGirr’s parishioners objected to a Black student at their children’s school, McGirr held fast and allowed Tolton to continue his studies. Tolton graduated from St. Peter’s in 1872.

Upon returning to Quincy, Tolton gained admission into St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University)—run by the Franciscans, who had previously been the first to reject his application for seminary.

Although tutored by Catholics who recognized his intellectual prowess, he had to study for the priesthood at a papal university in Rome because no seminary in the United States would take him. There, he honed his linguistic skills and delved into the depths of Catholic theology, defying the prejudices that had confined him in his homeland.

On April 24, 1886, at the age of 31, Tolton achieved a historic milestone as he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, becoming the first African-American Catholic priest. His first public Mass took place inside St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday, 1886. Despite expecting to serve in an African mission, he studied its regional cultures and languages. Instead, he was directed to return to the United States to serve the Black community.

Returning to the United States, Tolton dedicated himself to serving the spiritual needs of the Black community, encountering opposition and adversity at every turn. In Quincy and later in Chicago, he founded churches and ministered to the marginalized and disenfranchised, earning widespread recognition for his compassion and leadership. Tolton even had the honor of saying Mass at the Congress itself, held in Washington, D.C.

Tolton’s achievements in ministering to Black Catholics garnered national attention within the Catholic hierarchy.

However, Tolton began to suffer from “spells of illness” in 1893, compelling him to take a temporary leave of absence from his duties at St. Monica’s Parish in 1895.

Augustus Tolton: The Runaway Slave Who Became a Catholic priest in US

Tragically, at the age of 43, on July 8, 1897, he collapsed and passed away the following day at Mercy Hospital due to the heat wave in Chicago in 1897. Following a funeral attended by 100 priests, Tolton was laid to rest in the priests’ lot in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, fulfilling his expressed wish.

In recognition of his exemplary life, the Catholic Church initiated the process of canonization for Rev Tolton in 2010. Bestowed with the title of “Venerable,” he is revered as a symbol of resilience, faith, and the transformative power of love. For him to be beatified, one miracle must be attributed to Tolton, marking the next step in the process. Subsequently, a second miracle after beatification would be necessary for him to be declared a saint.

As the faithful await further developments in his journey toward sainthood, Tolton’s story remains a source of inspiration for generations.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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