Father John Augustine Tolton
John Augustine Tolton started life born into slavery on April 1, 1854 in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri. In 1862 while his father, an escaped slave, had joined the Union Army, his mother, a slave also, told John and his two siblings, "We must escape too." One night they fled to the Mississippi River. Three days later they reached the river finding a leaky old row boat. They boarded and started paddling. Three confederate soldiers witnessed the escape. A shot was fired but mother kept paddling towards freedom on the Illinois shore. Upon landing on the Illinois side she looked at her son with streaming eyes, "John, boy, you're free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord."
Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St Peter's Catholic Church of Quincy, IL noticed a poorly dressed African-American boy standing across from his church for the third day. He spoke to the boy. John Augustine told him he was hungry and willing to work. Father McGirr fed him and asked if he was interested in attending school.
John Augustine entered St. Peter's Catholic School. After the first month Father McGirr asked John who had already progressed to second reader, if he wanted to become Catholic. Father McGirr baptized him and instructed him for his first Holy Communion. John served as Alter Boy for the 5 a.m. Mass during the following summer. After which Father McGirr asked him if he would like to become a priest. John Augustine was incredulous. Father McGirr explained, "You would be the first Negro Catholic Priest of the United States. It will take you about twelve years of hard study." Excited and delighted all at once he turned to Father McGirr and said, "Let us go to church and pray for my success."
John progressed quickly in school. He finished high school, then attended and graduated from Quincy College. As an African-American in the United States during the nineteenth century Father McGirr and the Franciscan Fathers had to arrange for him to complete his ecclesiastical studies in Rome. He was an exemplary student. For the rest of his life John loved to speak of his wonderful experiences in the eternal City.
At the age of 32, John Augustine Tolton, who was born a slave in Missouri, was ordained a Catholic Priest in Rome by Cardinal Parochi on April 24, 1886. Newspapers throughout the United States carried the story and announced the date and arrival time of Father Tolton to Quincy, Illinois.
Upon arriving back to Quincy on July 17, 1886, Father Tolton was greeted at the train station like a conquering hero. Thousands were there to greet him led by Father McGirr. A brass band played church songs and Negro Spirituals. Thousands of blacks and whites lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the new priest wearing a black Prince Albert and a silk hat. People marched and cheered his flower draped four horse carriage. Children, priests and sisters left the school joining the procession heading towards the church.
Father Tolton arrived at the church where hundreds were waiting inside. People of all races were kneeling at the communion rail awaiting his sacerdotal blessings. The first blessing went to Father McGirr, his friend and benefactor. For this momentous occasion racial prejudices were momentarily replaced with religious fervor as all races kissed the new Father's hand.
The next day at 9 a.m. Father Tolton gave his first solemn High Mass. The church was packed as thousands stood outside unable to attend. There were many priests within the sanctuary. The Church was beautifully decorated for this special occasion. Father John Augustine Tolton sang his first Mass. Father McGirr preached the sermon sketching Father Tolton's story and gave purpose of the Holy Mass. Afterwards all knelt and asked the sacerdotal blessing of the priest. Later in life Father Tolton would explain that he was given the name of Augustine, the great African theologian, because that was his maternal grandfather's name, and he was given the name of John because that was the patron saint of the priest who baptized him. For five years Father Tolton led St. Boniface Mission in Quincy before Archbishop Feehan requested the only African-American priest to come to Chicago.
Chicago's Black Catholics
Mrs. Eliza Armstrong was Chicago's first Black Catholic in 1863 along with her daughter Rosa. Her husband, James, joined her in Chicago in 1865. In 1870, James McNeal arrived. Chicago Catholics were building Holy Name Cathedral, but it was burned down before completion by the Chicago fire of 1871. Bishop Foley bought Old St. Mary's Church on 9th and Wabash from Protestant as a temporary Cathedral.
In 1882 Father Joseph Roles, pastor of Old St. Mary's, gathered the Black Catholics of Chicago and formed a club named the St. Augustine Society. They visited the sick, fed the hungry and buried the dead. There good deeds attracted many new members. Permission was granted for them to have church services of there own. Their Mass was held in the basement of Old St. Mary's Church and first led by Father McMullan.
The St. Augustine Society requested Bishop Foley to obtain the services of Father Tolton as their spiritual director. Sometime between late 1899 and early 1890 Father Tolton came to Chicago. He continued to hold services in the church basement for several years dreaming of the day when his congregation would have a large beautiful church.
In 1891 permission was granted to build their church, St. Monica. Black contractors and workmen followed the designs of their Black architect to build the church on the northwest corner of 36th and Dearborn. Whites donated liberally including Mrs. O'Neill, who donated $10,000. The St. Augustine Society raised a considerable amount of money through numerous fund raisers. However it was not enough, and a temporary roof had to be used so that services could begin. The new church began holding services in 1893, and was dedicated to St. Monica, the mother of the great African bishop and doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, on January 14, by Rev. M. Neumann, OSF. Father Riordan of St. Elizabeth also took part in the dedication..
Father Tolton's basement congregation of 30 grew quickly once they moved into their new church. He moved to a small home behind the church where his mother and sister kept house for him. The surrounding community was interracial. Father Tolton was a charming man with a beautiful singing voice. Rome had forever touched him. He dreamed and planned for completing St. Monica. He wanted his congregation to point at their church with great pride.
Returning from the annual retreat of Chicago priests at St. Viator's College in Bourbonnais, Illinois on a hot July day Father Tolton was overwhelmed by the 105 degree. He collapsed somewhere near Calumet Avenue as he was walking from the train near Lake Michigan and 35th Street to his rectory at 36th and Dearborn. He was taken to the hospital, but four hours later on July 9, 1897 Father Tolton was dead from a sunstroke. The community was shocked as they had lost their beloved pastor seemingly in the prime of his life. Father Tolton rests at St. Mary's Cemetery just outside of Quincy, Illinois.
First Universally Recognized Black Priest in the United States
Augustus Tolton was born of the marriage union of Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton in Ralls County, Missouri on April 1, 1854. He had one older brother, Charles, and two younger sisters, Cordella and Anna. These children were all born into the same slavery to which their parents were subjected.
Peter Paul Tolton, in looking at his condition, could see nothing but the abuse of his people. He has his family were subject to the rules of another man’s life. As the Civil War began in 1861, Peter escaped slavery and joined the Union Army to fight for his family’s freedom. Tragically, he was among the 180,000 other Black men who were killed during that war. He died in St. Louis Hospital.
Martha Tolton, a strong and courageous woman, fulfilled her husband’s long quest for freedom. She gathered her children and walked to freedom by crossing the Mississippi River. Reaching safety, she spoke to her children, “Now you are! Never forget the goodness of the Lord!” Augustus was seven years old when he and his family reached Quincy, Illinois. He remembered his mother’s counsel, and never did forget the goodness of the Lord.
Prior to their escape, the slave owners of the Tolton family (the Elliots) had all their slaves baptized; so upon reaching Illinois, the family became members of the Roman Catholic Church. They continued to practice their faith after becoming free. Augustus was enrolled in Catholic School for a time, but had to withdraw because of the racial prejudice of the parishioners who protested the presence of a “Negro” in the school. Some of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who staffed St. Boniface School tutored Augustus until he got enrolled in St. Peter’s School, where he was allowed to attend classes.
As he grew, Augustus began to desire to serve the Lord more deeply by becoming a priest. However, at that time, the American Catholic Church did not allow black men to be admitted to studies in United States seminaries. Request to have Augustus admitted to an American seminary fell on deaf ears. His parish priests, disheartened by the prejudice of those in charge of seminaries, began to tutor Augustus themselves.
In 1878, he was admitted to Franciscan College at Quincy, Illinois as a special student. However the two parish priests (Frs. McGuirr and Richardt) continued their efforts to get him into a seminary. In 1880, they were successful, and Augustus left for the Propaganda College in Rome to prepare for priesthood. For a time, Augustus thought that he would be sent to Africa to serve as a missionary after ordination; but Cardinal Giovanni Simeon thought it best that he return to his home country and diocese of Alton, Illinois. The Cardinal said “America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation, we will see now whether it deserves the honor. If the United States has never seen a Black priest, it must see one now. Can you drink from this cup?” Despite knowing well the resistance he would surely face upon returning, Augustus answered the call, “I can drink of the cup of the Lord!”
Fr. Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886, as the first known and recognized Black priest in the United States of America. Returning to the United States, he ministered for two years as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Quincy, Illinois. He quickly gained a reputation as a fine preacher, so much so that many of the German and Irish Catholics began to attend Mass with the Black Catholics! He was most attentive to the spiritual and human needs of his people. Soon his Masses and inbstruction classes gained prominence, and he was asked to attend and speak at many poublic gatherings. His increasing popularity unleashed both hidden racism and the jealousy of both Catholic and non-Catholic ministers in the area. His enemies referred to his church as “that nigger churchg”, and to him as ‘the nigger priest”.
The extent of the persecution Fr. Tolton received especially from the other Catholic pastor in Quincy (Fr. Weiss) led to his transfer from Quincy to Chicago. Then Chicago Archbishop Feegan thought this gifted young black man would have a powerful impact in the Chicago diocese. Upon arriving there, Tolton ministered in a Southside church basement that was known as St. Augustine’s, and later became St. Monica’s Church. Parishioners eventually found him an apartment at 448 East 36th Street, and his mother and sister moved in with Fr. Tolton, who had been given jurisdiction of all Blacks in Chicago, and had become the first Black pastor in Chicago. Although the formal church building was never totally completed, the parish continued to gather at the small chapel on 36th and Dearborn Streets for Mass and other assemblies. St. Monica’s became the center of Black Catholic life for more than 30 years.
Augustus Tolton continued to be well known in Chicago and the United States. He spoke at numerous gatherings and lectures, including the 1st Catholic Colored Congress in Washington DC in 1889. Catholics in Boston and New York heard him speak, and he preached at places like the Cathedral in Galveston, Texas and many others. Papers throughout the country played up Fr. Tolton’s unique role as the only full blooded Black priest in the American Catholic Church. Augustus was proud of his Blackness, and extremely devoted to his people.
Perhaps it was because he was so devoted and hard-working that his life was cut short far too early. In July 1897, he journeyed with other Diocesan priests to make a retreat, returning on an excessively hot day on Friday, July 9, 1897. As he stepped from the train at 35th Street and Lake Park, and began walking home, he was stricken by a heat stroke and rushed to Mercy hospital. He died that night at the age of 43.
Later, the first Black Catholic Bishop, Harold Perry, SVD, wrote this of Fr. Augustus Tolton: “Fr. Tolton found his opposition within the Church and among church people, where compassion should have offset established prejudice and ignorance. It was his lot to disprove the myth that young Black men could not assume the responsibility of the Catholic priesthood.”