SERVANT of GOD AUGUSTINE TOLTON, born in Missouri in 1854, was the first Roman Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be black when he was ordained in 1886.
His mother Martha, who was raised Catholic, named him after an uncle named Augustus. He was baptized Augustine in St. Peter's Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri, a community about 12 miles from Hannibal. His master was Stephen Elliott. Savilla Elliot, his master's wife, was Augustine's godmother.
How the Tolton family gained their freedom remains a subject of debate. According to accounts Father Tolton told friends and parishioners, his father escaped first and joined the Union Army. His mother then ran away with her children, Charley, Augustine, and Anne. With the assistance of sympathetic Union soldiers and police, she crossed the Mississippi River into the Free State of Illinois. According to descendants of the Elliott family, though, Stephen Elliott freed all his slaves at the outbreak of the American Civil War and allowed them to move North.
After arriving in Quincy, Illinois, Martha, Augustus, and Charley began working at the Herris Tobacco Company where they made cigars. After Charley's death at a young age, Augustine met Father Peter McGirr, an Irish-American priest, who gave him the opportunity to attend St. Peter's parochial school during the winter months when the factory was closed. The priest's decision was controversial in the parish. Although abolitionists were active in the town, many of Father McGirr's parishioners objected to a black student at their children's school, but Father McGirr held fast and allowed Augustus to study there.
Despite Father McGirr's support, Augustus was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. Impressed by his personal qualities, Father McGirr continued to help him and enabled him to study in Rome. Augustine graduated from St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) and attended the Pontifical Urbaniana University, where he became fluent in Italian as well as studying Latin and Greek.
He was ordained at the age of 31 in Rome on Easter Sunday at the basilica of St. John Lateran. Fearing that Father Tolton’s priesthood would be filled with suffering given the prevailing racial prejudice that prevailed in the United States, his superiors thought he would serve as a missionary priest in Africa. However, his mentor, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni, challenged the Church in the United States to accept Father Tolton as its first African-American priest. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor.” He returned to his home Diocese of Alton, Illinois, which once embraced the Dioceses of Springfield and Belleville. After his First Mass in Quincy, he was assigned to St. Joseph Church, the “Negro Parish.”assigned to the diocese of Alton (now Diocese of Springfield), Father Tolton first ministered to his home parish in Quincy, Illinois. Later assigned to Chicago, he led the development and construction of St. Monica's Catholic Church as a black "national parish church", completed in 1893 on Chicago's South Side.
Father Tolton suffered under increasing isolation and feelings of apprehension, perpetrated by local clergy with whom he needed association, to say nothing of the town’s lay Catholics. He became well known around the country as the first visible Black Catholic priest, renowned for his preaching and public speaking abilities and his sensitive ministry to everyone. He was often asked to speak at conventions and other gatherings of Catholics of both races.
Father Tolton became renowned for attending to the needs of his people with tireless zeal and a holy joy. He was a familiar figure in the streets and back alleys, in the Negro shacks and tenement houses. He had the pastoral sensitivity needed to bring hope and comfort to the sick and the dying, to bestow spiritual and material assistance, and to mitigate the suffering and sorrow of an oppressed people.
Father Tolton began to be plagued by "spells of illness" in 1893. Like most poor People of Color, Father Tolton lacked adequate health care. At the age of 43, he collapsed and died as a result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1897.
After his death, St. Monica's was made a mission Church. In 1924 it was closed as a national parish, as black Catholics chose to attend parish churches in their own neighborhoods.
His correspondence with St Katherine Drexel and shows us a humble and prayerful man of remarkable faith. He proved an example of a true priest of Jesus Christ in an extraordinary time, when most Americans could not imagine that a son of Africa could make a significant contribution to society or to the Church. In a June 5, 1891 letter to Mother Katherine Drexel he wrote, “I shall work and pull at it as long as God gives me life, for I am beginning to see that I have powers and principalities to resist anywhere and everywhere I go.”
"Good Father Gus", as he was called by many, was known for his "eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent for playing the accordion."
On the 2nd March 2010 Cardinal George of Chicago announced that he was beginning an official investigation into Father Tolton's life and virtues with a view to opening the Cause for his canonization. This Cause for Sainthood is also being advanced by the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, where Father Tolton first served as priest, as well as the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, where his family was enslaved.
On February 24, 2011 he was made Servant of God in the first step towards canonization.