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Born into slavery in 1854, Fr. Augustus (Augustine) Tolton was one of the country’s first African American Roman Catholic priests. Tolton shares early black Catholic history with three brothers of Irish-African American ancestry: James, Sherwood, and Patrick Healy. The Healy brothers were ordained two to three decades prior to Tolton but did not encounter the widespread racial prejudice faced by Tolton.
Augustus John Tolton, sometimes referred to as Augustine, was born on April 11, 1854 to Martha Jane Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton, both slaves from neighboring farms near Brush Creek in Missouri. Both parents were raised and baptized as Catholics, according to the stipulations of their owners. In 1851 Martha and Peter were allowed to marry but remained under their original slave ownerships. The couple had three children, including Augustus.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Peter enlisted in the Union Army and died in a St. Louis hospital. When Augustus was nine, Martha escaped out of slavery, and the family crossed the Mississippi River into Quincy, Illinois. Martha found factory work there and joined Saint Boniface Church, comprised mostly of white parishioners. When she attempted to enroll her son in the church school, white parents threatened to withdraw from the parish. The family joined the St. Lawrence Church, later renamed Saint Peter Church, where Augustus was able to attend school.
As a teen, Augustus Tolton expressed his interest in the priesthood and was tutored privately by local priests when Catholic colleges in the U.S. would not admit him. In 1878 he entered the Franciscans at Saint Francis College, now known as Quincy University, and helped found Saint Joseph School for black children. The school was successful, despite opposition from white residents.
In 1880 at the age of 26 he was accepted into the College of the Propagation of the Faith seminary in Rome with plans to pursue missionary work in Africa. Six years later he was ordained a priest but was assigned to his home diocese in Illinois as pastor of the Negro Church of Saint Joseph in Quincy. Under Tolton’s leadership, the church grew to capacity and included white parishioners. This angered a Quincy clergy leader, who urged Tolton to minister only to black members or leave.
In 1889 Tolton requested reassignment to Chicago, accompanied by his mother, sister and 19 of his Quincy parishioners. In Chicago, Tolton became pastor of an all-black parish of 30 that had been meeting in temporary facilities. Tolton renamed it Saint Monica’s Chapel, opening initially as a store front church. By 1893 the parish had received a large donation from a benefactor and constructed a church on the corner of 36th and Dearborn Streets. It grew to serve 600 black and white parishioners.
In failing health and during a record heat wave, Fr. Augustus Tolton died on July 9, 1897 at the age of 43. Saint Monica’s Church declined in membership after Tolton’s death and was consolidated in 1924 with Saint Elizabeth’s Church, now considered “The Mother Church” of the Black Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In 2010 the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it was introducing Fr. Augustus Tolton for canonization into sainthood.
Nathan Aaseng, African American Religious Leaders (New York: Facts on
File, 2003); Caroline Hemesath, From Slave to Priest: A Biography of
Reverent Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), The First Black Priest of the
United States (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973); James M.
O’Toole, Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family,
1820-1920 (Andover: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).