Fr Augustus Tolton was the first African-American priest. Born a slave, denied entry to US seminaries, he travelled to Rome to be enter the priesthood. Overcoming racism, he became a respected pastor. Now he is on the path to sainthood.
- By C. Vanessa White, U.S. Catholic
I had never heard of Fr Augustus Tolton until I took a course in black Catholic history at Xavier University in New Orleans.
I did not know that he had ministered in Chicago (where I was from) nor of the many difficulties he had encountered.
Tolton is known as the first American priest of African descent who identified as black. In 2010 the Archdiocese of Chicago officially opened the process of canonization for Tolton.
He was born a slave in 1854 in Missouri. His father escaped slavery to join the Union Army (later dying as a soldier), and in the 1860s his mother, Martha Tolton, fled with her two sons and an infant daughter, dodging Confederate bullets and travelling at night.
The family eventually crossed the Mississippi River in a rowboat and made their way to Quincy in the free state of Illinois.
Martha tried to find a welcoming church community for her children, but for years Augustus endured ridicule and humiliation in Quincy's parishes and schools.
Augustus felt called to the priesthood, but he was denied acceptance by every Catholic seminary in the country.
With the help of two Quincy priests and Catholic benefactors, he worked for the next 10 years in tobacco factories and other jobs, until he was able to save enough money to travel to Rome to attend a seminary there.
For the next six years he studied to become a missionary priest, with the understanding that he would be sent to minister in Africa.
On the night before his ordination in 1886, Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, summoned Tolton to tell him that he was being sent back to America.
The Cardinal said, 'America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honour. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.'
Tolton was assigned to St Joseph Parish in Quincy, and although he won the hearts of young and old alike, he also endured humiliation, isolation, and condemnation from fellow priests who could not accept him.
They called him the 'n----r priest,' and when a large number of white Catholics attended his parish, the jealous pastor of a neighbouring parish told him he should not allow white people in his church. Tolton responded, 'We open the doors to the church. We do not tell people to go out; we tell them to go into the church.'
Later he was invited to come to Chicago to minister to the emerging black Catholic community.
His remaining years there were spent ministering to the poor, caring for the sick and hungry.
Read full article: Augustus Tolton: Pioneer pastor (U.S. Catholic)
Father Augustus Tolton Cause for Canonisation (www.toltoncanonization.org)
Fr Augustus Tolton: The Cause for Sainthood (Catholic Chicago/YouTube)