February 9, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Black Catholics in U.S. history: This week, Augustus Tolton

John F. FinkAugustus Tolton was the first American Catholic priest known to be black. (Father Patrick Healy and his brother Bishop James Healy, ordained earlier, were of mixed ancestry.) Tolton’s life shows just how racist some of our Catholic ancestors were.

He was born the son of slaves in Missouri in 1854, just prior to the Civil War. His family escaped, crossed the Mississippi River into free territory, and settled in Quincy, Ill. There he met Father Peter McGirr, an Irish immigrant priest, who took a liking to him. The priest allowed him to attend St. Peter’s School, over the opposition of parishioners who objected to a black student in their school.

Augustus felt a calling to the priesthood, so Father McGirr tried to get him admitted to a seminary. Not a single seminary in the country would admit him. But Father McGirr continued to support Augustus at St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) in Quincy.

In order to prepare for the priesthood, he had to go to Rome, where he attended the Pontifical Urbaniana University. He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1886 when he was 31. Father Tolton expected to be sent to Africa as a missionary, but the cardinal who ordained him arranged for him to be sent back to Illinois to serve the black community.

That cardinal is reported to have said, “America has been called the most enlightened nation. We will see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.”

Back in Quincy, Father Tolton was met with opposition from clergy and lay people alike. He organized St. Joseph Catholic Church and school, but the bishop’s delegate told him that white people should not attend his church. Black Protestant ministers also opposed him because they didn’t want him taking parishioners away from them.

Three years after his ordination, he was transferred to Chicago by Archbishop Patrick Feehan. There he led a mission society, St. Augustine’s, which met in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. That led to the development of St. Monica Parish, at 36th and Dearborn streets, to serve the black community. The church was built with money from philanthropist Anne O’Neill and St. Katharine Drexel.

The parish started with only 30 parishioners before the church was built, but grew to 600. Father Tolton threw himself into administering the parish, and soon earned a national reputation. One article about him said that he was known for his “eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent for playing the accordion.”

However, Father Tolton began to be plagued by spells of illness in 1893, so much so that he had to take a temporary leave of absence from his duties at St. Monica’s in 1895. Then, during a severe heat wave in 1897, he collapsed on the street and died the next day when he was only 43.

One hundred priests attended his funeral before he was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy. His case for canonization was introduced by Cardinal Francis E. George in 2010. †

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