Father Augustus Tolton

The First Black Priest in the United States

The first black priest of the United States of America was born in Ralls County, Missouri, on April 1, 1854, from two slaves, Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane. Augustus' father was one of 180,000 black soldiers who perished in the ranks of the Union Army. Thus, he lost his father at a young age. He owed his survival to his mother who decided to escape to Quincy, Illinois, where the devout woman began to attend a Catholic church. There, the Toltons also had to fight against prejudices which limited young Augustus' education. 

Early on in life, Augustus showed interest in the priesthood. Father McGirr and Father Richardt encouraged the young man in his aspiration and tried to enroll him in numerous diocesan seminaries but did not succeed. Finally, in 1878, the Franciscan College of Quincy accepted Augustus as a special student and two years later, his sponsors succeeded in enrolling him in the Pontifical Urban College "De Propaganda Fide" in Rome.

Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886, at St. John Lateran and celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter's the following day. Like every member of Propaganda Fide, he knew that he had to accept the destination his superiors chose for him, and, in all his years of formation, he prepared himself to go to Africa, thinking that he was destined for that mission. To his surprise, Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, told him that he would be sent back to the United States, where the Church at that time was considered in need of missionaries, and work in a parish in Illinois. "America needs black priests," the cardinal said to the newly-ordained priest. "America has been called the most enlightened nation. We will see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never seen a black priest, they must see one now. Can you drink from this chalice?" Fr. Tolton replied in Latin, "I can." 

Fr. Augustine Tolton's first assignment was at St. Joseph Church in the heart of Quincy. During the first two years, Fr. Tolton earned the respect and attention of many parishioners with German and Irish origin who ended up sitting with their African-American brothers and sisters in Christ to listen to his inspiring sermons. He was often invited to preach in other parishes and his catechism classes were full of enthusiastic catechists, but due to his popularity, not only the Protestant pastors, but even the Catholic priests were envious of him, including Dean Father Weiss. Shortly after, Fr. Tolton was forced to look for another diocese to work in and after much research, the Archbishop of Chicago, Monsignor Patrick Augustine Feehan, assigned him to a poor parish in the south end of the city where many African-American Catholics lived. It eventually became St. Monica Church and the center of evangelization for all African-American Catholics in Chicago.

Fr. Tolton's reputation as a preacher earned him many opportunities to reveal the truths of the Fatih and the vocation of holiness to all. This included preaching to the first Congress of Catholics in Washington, D.C., in 1889, where he met Mother Katharine Drexel, an heiress who was encouraged by Pope Leo XIII to become a missionary and found the congregation the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, serving the Native-Americans and African-Americans in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Fr. Tolton did not write a lot nor keep a diary, but only sent a few letters to Mother Drexel, who was canonized by Saint John Paul II in 2000. It was she who financed a school for African-American children that Fr. Tolton opened near his parish.

While facing discrimination and unjust prejudice, Fr. Augustine Tolton never surrendered his priestly ministry which wore him out physically, but never in spirit. One very hot day, on July 9, 1887, Fr. Tolton returned to Chicago after participating on a spiritual retreat with a group of other diocesan priests. While he was walking, he fell on the sidewalk and suffered a heat stroke. He was rushed to Mercy Hospital but there was not much to do. That evening, his life on earth ended at forty-three years old surrounded by his mother, sister and many religious sisters praying. On February 13, 2012, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints granted the title of Servant of God to Fr. Augustus Tolton.