To characterize Father Augustus Tolton’s life as remarkable is an understatement, to say the least. He was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1854, and his mother risked everything to reach freedom in Illinois with her three small children, escaping across the Mississippi River by night in a boat that she rowed herself. After settling in the town of Quincy, IL, the family continued to experience hardships and persecution. Young Gus, as he was called, was even sent away from the local Catholic school because of the color of his skin.
In spite of all this, he persevered in his deep desire to become a Catholic priest, even when every seminary in the United States rejected him. “We’re not ready for a colored priest,” they protested. But Augustus did not give up. He was finally ordained in Rome, and upon his return to Illinois, he worked tirelessly to serve people of all races, especially the former slaves who flocked to Chicago.
Fr. Tolton saw the Catholic Church as the answer to the discrimination and rejection that he experienced in his own life. “It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors," he said. “We should welcome all people into the Church, not send them away.”
At the young age of 43, Fr. Tolton collapsed from heat exhaustion on the streets of Chicago and died a few hours later. Now his cause for sainthood is moving forward, as more and more people are beginning to recognize the humble perseverance, determination and compassion of this extraordinary man.