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Augustus Tolton was born on this date in 1854. He was one America's first Black priest.
He was born in Ralls County, Missouri, the son of Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton. He had one older brother, Charles, and two younger sisters, Cordella and Anna. As the Civil War began in 1861, his father escaped slavery, joined the Union Army to fight, and was killed. His mother collected her children and walked to freedom by crossing the Mississippi River, eventually reaching Quincy, Illinois. Before their escape, the Tolton family was baptized and after getting to Illinois, they became members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Some of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who staffed St. Boniface School tutored young Tolton until he was enrolled in St. Peter’s School, where he began to wish to serve the Lord more deeply by becoming a priest. The American Catholic Church, however, did not allow Black men to be admitted to studies in United States seminaries. His parish priests began to tutor Augustus themselves. In 1878, he was admitted to Franciscan College at Quincy, IL, as a special student. In 1880, the efforts of his parish priests were met with success and Augustus left for the Propaganda College in Rome to prepare for the priesthood. For a time, Augustus thought that he would be sent to Africa to serve as a missionary after ordination; but he returned to the diocese of Alton, IL.
Father Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886, as one of the first known and recognized black priest in the United States of America. Returning to the United States, he ministered for two years as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Quincy, IL. He quickly gained a reputation as a fine preacher, so much so that many of the white-German and white-Irish Catholics began to attend Mass with the Black Catholics! Tolton’s increasing popularity unleashed both hidden racism and the jealousy of both Catholic and non-Catholic ministers in the area.
His adversaries referred to his church as “that nigger church,” and to him as "the nigger priest.” The extent of the persecution Tolton received, especially from the other Catholic pastor in Quincy (Father Weiss) led to his transfer from Quincy to Chicago. In the Windy City, Tolton ministered in a Southside church basement that was known as St. Augustine’s and later became St. Monica’s Church.
Parishioners eventually found him an apartment into which his mother and sister also moved. Tolton, who had been given jurisdiction of all Blacks in Chicago, had become the first Black pastor in that city. Although the formal church building was never totally completed, the parish continued to gather at the small chapel on 36th and Dearborn Streets for Mass and other assemblies. St. Monica’s became Chicago’s center of Black Catholic life for more than 30 years. Tolton continued to be well known there and nationally, speaking at numerous gatherings and lectures, including the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1889.
Catholics in Boston and New York heard him, as did many in places like the Cathedral in Galveston, TX. Perhaps because he was so devoted and hard-working, his life was cut short far too early. On an excessively hot Friday, July 9, 1897, as he stepped from the train at 35th Street and Lake Park, he was stricken by a heat-related stroke and rushed to Mercy hospital. He died that night at the age of 43.