Fr. Augustus Tolton, a man born into slavery who became the first American diocesan priest of African descent, is now being considered for canonization. Cardinal Francis George announced on Monday that the nineteenth century priest’s cause for sainthood has been introduced in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton; but black Catholics most probably have,” the Archbishop of Chicago wrote.
Born in Missouri on April 1, 1854, John Augustine Tolton fled slavery with his mother and two siblings in 1862 by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.
“John, boy, you’re free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord,” Tolton’s mother told him after the crossing, according to the website of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Chicago.
The young Tolton entered St. Peter’s Catholic School with the help of the school’s pastor, Fr. Peter McGirr. Fr. McGirr would later baptize him and instruct him for his first Holy Communion. Tolton was serving as an altar boy by the next summer.
The priest asked Tolton if he would like to become a priest, saying it would take twelve years of hard study.
The excited boy then said they should go to church and pray for his success.
After graduating from high school and Quincy College, he began his ecclesiastical studies in Rome because no American seminary would accept him on account of his race.
On April 24, 1886 he was ordained in Rome by Cardinal Lucido Maria Parocchi, who was then the vicar general of Rome. Newspapers throughout the U.S. carried the story.
Fr. Tolton was ordained for the southern Illinois Diocese of Quincy. Upon his return in July 1886, he was greeted at the train station “like a conquering hero,” the web site of St. Elizabeth’s Parish says.
“Thousands were there to greet him, led by Father McGirr. A brass band played church songs and Negro Spirituals. Thousands of blacks and whites lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the new priest wearing a black Prince Albert and a silk hat. People marched and cheered his flower-draped four-horse carriage. Children, priests and sisters left the school joining the procession heading towards the church.”
Hundreds waited at the local church where people of all races knelt at the communion rail.
Fr. Tolton served in Quincy before going to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. The new church was named for St. Monica and opened in 1893.
On July 9, 1897 Fr. Tolton collapsed during a hot day and died from sunstroke at the age of 43. Cardinal George explained that most priests in the nineteenth century died before their fiftieth birthday.
“Visiting the sick on a daily basis was risky in an age before antibiotics,” he explained.
The priest was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery just outside of Quincy, Illinois.
An investigation for canonization will collect evidence of Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues and will investigate claims of his miraculous intercession.