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From Slavery to Sainthood: The Amazing Story of Fr. Augustus Tolton

Updated on July 17, 2014
Portrait of Fr. Augustus Tolton taken in Chicago in the 1890s.
Portrait of Fr. Augustus Tolton taken in Chicago in the 1890s. | Source

John Augustine Tolton was born a slave in Brush Creek, Missouri on April 1, 1854. His mother, left alone with John and his two siblings after his father escaped to join the Union Army, led the family across the Mississipi River to freedom in Quincy, Illinois in 1862.

Eight year old John, hungry and poorly dressed, was noticed by Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Quincy. Offering to work for food, Father McGirr gave him a meal asked him if he wanted to attend St. Peter’s Catholic school.

Young John excelled in school, and Father McGirr asked him if he wanted to become a Catholic. John was baptized soon afterward, and studied with Father McGirr for his Holy Communion. After serving a summer as Alter Boy for the 5 a.m. mass, Father McGirr asked young John if he would like to become a priest—the first African-American priest in the United States. Amazed, but eager to embark on the 12 years of difficult study, the two prayed for his success.

After high school, John attended and graduated from Quincy College. Denied entry to enter an American Catholic Seminary, Father McGirr and a group of Franciscan Fathers assisted with the arrangements for John to study in Rome. At age 32, John Augustine Tolton was ordained a Catholic Priest in Rome by Lucindo Cardinal Parochi on April 24, 1886.

Fr. Augustus Tolton returned to the United States to a hero’s welcome on July 6, 1886 and offered his first Mass on American soil to the mostly Black congregation at St. Benedict the Moor parish church in New York City. He also presided over Mass for the Franciscan Sisters at Hoboken, New Jersey.

Father Tolton returned to Quincy on July 17, 1886. As the train pulled into town, a band played "Holy God" as the crowd of all colors cheered. A decorated carriage drawn by four white horses took him through the streets to Saint Peter Church where an even another crowd had been waiting.

On July 25, 1886, Father Tolton was formally installed as pastor at the Negro Church of Saint Joseph in Quincy, and began his pastoral work. The Quincy Journal had high praise for Father Tolton, citing his "fine educational training," "wholehearted earnestness," and "a rich voice which falls pleasantly on the ear."

Newly discovered photo of Fr. Tolton, believed to be from the late 1890s.
Newly discovered photo of Fr. Tolton, believed to be from the late 1890s. | Source

Meanwhile, African-American Catholics began arriving in Chicago during the Civil War. They formed the St. Augustine Society in the early 1880s to visit the sick, feed the poor, and bury the dead. As their reputation and numbers grew, they desired to form a congregation of their own.

In 1889, the St. Augustine Society requested Bishop Foley to secure Rev. John Augustine Tolton, first African-American priest ordained for the United States, as their spiritual director. Father Tolton had been experiencing some racial resentment from priests at another parish, and decided that starting a new parish and building a new church in Chicago would be a good move. He wrote to the Rome on September 4, 1889, "I beg you, give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest." A few weeks later, he made another request adding, "There are nineteen Negroes here whom I have baptized and they will follow me to Chicago. I will go at once, as soon as I receive your consent." On December 7, 1889, Father Tolton received approval. He arrived in Chicago on December 19, and found a room at 2251 South Indiana Avenue, about a mile and a half from St. Mary’s Church at 9th and Wabash.

Fr. Tolton began ministering to the small congregation of 30 parishioners in the basement of St. Mary’s Church while working to establish his own parish. Under Fr. Tolton’s leadership, The St. Augustine Society sought donations to establish their own church. In 1891, Mrs. Anna O’Neill donated $10,000 for the building, which was to be named St. Monica’s.

Construction was started on a grand church for St. Monica's parish, and by the time St. Monica’s opened at 36th and Dearborn in 1893, Fr. Tolton was ministering to six hundred parishioners.

Returning from the annual retreat of Chicago priests in Bourbonnais, Illinois on July 9, 1897, Fr. Tolton was overwhelmed by the 105-degree heat. He collapsed near Calumet Avenue as he walked to his rectory from the train station at 35th Street and Lake Michigan. He was taken to Mercy Hospital, but passed away four hours later from sunstroke. Father Augustus Tolton is buried at St. Mary's Cemetery near Quincy, Illinois.

In March 2010, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago announced the first step toward potential canonization of Fr. Tolton: an official investigation of his life and virtues. The Diocese of Springfield, Illinois and Jefferson City, Missouri both joined in the action. A commission will collect evidence of Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues and will investigate claims of his miraculous intercession.

On February 24, 2011, the Roman Catholic Church officially began the formal introduction of cause for sainthood for Fr. Tolton. In doing so, Fr. Tolton was designated Servant of God.

As of July 2014, the process of canonization continues. To assist in the process of investigation and research, a website has been established to raise funds and collect information from the public.

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    Lee Cloak 2 years ago

    Fantastic hub, a really interesting read about an interesting man and period in history, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee

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    paguilar 2 years ago

    Great Hub. Although he is the first US citizen of African decent, we can't forget about St. Martin de Porres who was the first to be accepted as the first lay brother of the Dominican Order in the Americas.