“A colored child born April 1, 1854, son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, property of Stephen Elliott.”
That’s all it says in the baptismal record for Father Augustus Tolton. Born a slave to Peter Paul and Martha Tolton, of Brush Creek, Missouri, he grew up to become the first African American Catholic priest.
Ten years later, his father had gone to fight for the Union Army and was presumed dead in the Civil War. His heroic mother then risked her life to escape slavery. With her three young children, she crossed the Mississippi in a boat with one oar. After dodging Confederate bullets, she and her children then ran all the way to the town of Quincy, in the free state of Illinois. There they made a home, and Augustus Tolton grew in the Catholic Faith and in the conviction that God was calling him to be a priest.
Constantly the victim of racial prejudice, he was cast out of the local Catholic school. Because no US seminary would accept him, he went on to study for the priesthood in Rome. He was ordained on April 24, 1886 in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, with the intention of heading for Africa as a missionary. However, God had other plans. Instead, Augustus was sent back into the hostile environment of his own hometown of Quincy, Illinois.
His sermons and presence there were inspiring and charismatic. White and black alike flocked to his church. This aroused the jealousy of the other Catholic priests in the area. Protestant black ministers were also envious and felt he was stealing people away from their congregations.
Finally, Augustus was transferred to Chicago where he set about establishing a parish in that city. First, his tiny congregation met in the basement of “Old Saint Mary’s” Church. Then he began the work of building Saint Monica Church, named for the African mother of Saint Augustine. Father Tolton’s reputation for holiness grew. The phenomenon of a black Catholic priest, who was a terrific preacher, placed a demand on him to travel the country. This he did tirelessly, evangelizing and raising money for his struggling congregation.
Returning from a priests’ retreat, Father Tolton collapsed from heat exhaustion and was taken to Mercy Hospital. Tragically, he died there on July 9, 1897, at the age of 43.
Father Augustus Tolton’s life here on earth was one of hidden holiness. His cause for canonization has been presented by Cardinal Francis George to the Vatican and is moving forward quickly. Bearing the insults of racial prejudice, he suffered with Christ, reminding us of these words of Psalm 118:
"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."