Father Augustine Tolton

By Travis on March 17, 2010

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Many polarizing figures in history posses a innate ability stare hardships and adversity in the eyes, and then overcome them. Father Augustine Tolton, the first ordained African American priest in the United States lived a lifetime of rising above the adversity in which he came to know all to well.

In 1853 Augustine Tolton was born in Brush Creek, Missouri to Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley. Peter and Martha were slaves of two different families, however after being married in a catholic ceremony were allowed to share a cabin together. An arrangement was made among the slave owners first allowing the ceremony, sharing a household, as well as staking claim to any children that might result in the couple’s union. Augustine was one of three children including an older sickly brother Charles as well as a younger sister Anne.

At this time, the United States found itself at a crossroads as the issue of slavery began to divide the nation. An early catalyst was the Dred Scott Decision of 1957. In this renowned court case. Dred Scott, a slave whose owner brought him into Illinois and then present day Minnesota. The owner then moved back to Missouri which was a slave state. Due to both Illinois and present day Minnesota being free states, Mr. Scott stated that he should be considered free. The case was argued but never was formerly received into the courts, for it was told that slaves had no personal rights, and that they were seen as property rather than persons.

Augustine’s father as well as many other slaves, fled to the north for the chance to fight along side with the Union army as they fought for the freedom and dignity that would accompany victory for the North. Martha had no communication with Peter and not until much later would she learn of her husbands death in battle. Martha continued to care for the children, each day in the fields growing more and more arduous. With rumors of slave traders soon arriving in the area, Martha decided it was best to run for freedom. Over several nights Martha traveled cautiously with her three children. They were almost capture in Hannibal when confederate soldiers tried to apprehend them. Union soldiers prevented their capture claiming the area in question was actually under Union Control. Martha and the children continued their journey soon finding themselves in Quincy, an abolitionist town well known as facilitating runaway slaves on their journey to freedom. Martha and children were warmly welcomed by a kind widow Mrs. Davis who’s residence they would call home for several years. Soon work was acquired by Martha and the boys finding employment at the Harris Tobacco factory which was located at 5th and Ohio. In 1863 Augustine’s older brother Charles, often afflicted by sickness, was overcome with a severe case of pneumonia and after a brief struggle died.

Augustine would soon be placed in St. Boniface school in hopes that he would gain a good education and advance himself in the world. Though Quincy was a known hub for the abolitionist movement, racial tensions still existed. Students made Augustine’s  life intolerable during school due to his lack of prior education. Father Schaefermeyer, the priest at the time, though welcoming Augustine, received threats from parishioners that petitions would be made to have him removed as priest. After much torment a decision was made to remove Augustine from St. Boniface.

Several years would pass until Augustine returned to his education. At the age of fourteen he entered an all black school later becoming Lincoln School located at 10th and Oak. Again he was tormented for lack of previous schooling. Children of mixed race were predominant at this school and looked down on Augustine. After several months of continued teasing and hardships Augustine sought a new school where we might be able to further his education and potential in life. Augustine soon found the type of environment he was seeking within the confides of St. Lawrence school (today St. Peter’s). The priest, Father Peter McGirr, was a fiery Irishman who saw great potential in Augustine regardless of the controversy that would inevitably come by bringing in the first black student into the school. Despite the expected cries of disgust from the parish, Father McGirr blazed a path of righteousness through the intolerance often reminding parishioners that everyone is God’s child. Augustine would  later recall “As long as I was in that school, I was safe. Everyone was kind to me. I learned the alphabet, spelling, reading and arithmetic.”

Father McGirr took note of Augustine’s devout religious spirit and encouraged him to consider the priesthood, which Gus, as Augustine was commonly called, took to heart and began to pursue. There were many hurdles facing Gus, as there simply were no black priests in the country. Despite consistent efforts, no seminary was ready to except a black student. A group of Quincy priests decided that if Gus would not be accepted elsewhere, they would come together and tutor him locally. After being tutored in various placed in Quincy, as well as a brief stint in Northeast Missouri, Gus was accepted as a student at St. Francis College, Today Quincy University. While at the college Gus expressed a deep longing to offer religious instruction and teaching to the black children in the community. One of Tolton’s teacher’s Father Richard helped in re-utilizing a parish located at 7th and Jersey owned by St. Boniface but not currently in use. At first only a Sunday School was offered at this facility, but soon regular daily education was being provided for the youth of the more than 3,000 African Americans who resided in Quincy. This institution became St. Joseph School. Augustine was not satisfied with being a lay apostle, he was more determined then ever to become a priest.

At age 26 Augustine received word of his acceptance into Propaganda Seminary in Rome, Italy. Many of Tolton’s past and present teachers had ties to bishops who would inevitably help gain Gus’ acceptance into the Roman Seminary. Upon his eventual ordination many assumed he would be transferred to an African country for his service. On April 15th 1880 Augustine left Quincy for his eventual destination of Rome Italy. As a gesture of support and to help pay his expenses Bishop Baltes of the Alton diocese sent Gus $50. After the 12 day journey Tolton soon found himself in Rome in Vatican City. Surely this must have seemed like a dream come true for a young man who’s humble beginnings had been overcome. Tolton would continue his studies and receive the affectionate nickname “Gus from the U.S.” Racial tension did not exist in Rome and the experience of such an accepting society must have seemed like world’s away from what Tolton was used to. Though he was thousands of miles away from home, Gus kept up with the happenings of St. Joseph school. the school’s fate seemed in question when he received word that it had been closed. Great news followed though, the school was to be reopened, along with the church being restored by donated labor and reopened, serving as a parish for the Black citizens in Quincy.

After completing various studies and receiving various rights, Augustine was ordained a deacon on November 8, 1885. Tolton’s lifelong dream had been realized, this would later be reflected in his writings; “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains in Africa.” Gus eagerly anticipated his orders from the church on where his destination would be for God’s service. Augustine was certain that we would soon find himself in an African nation preaching the good word. This seemed to be the case…until the last minute. It seems that God had other plans for Augustine.

Cardinal Simeoni stated that “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now!” Cardinal Semeoni instructed Tolton that rather than Africa, he would be sent to the Diocese of Alton, Illinois. To say that this was unexpected by Tolton would be an understatement. It seemed that Augstine had come full circle, growing up in the slave state of Missouri, he would not find himself a river away from Missouri, still a hotbed of racial tension. Tolton accepted his assignment and went forth to the challenges that awaited him. On word of Tolton’s return, his friends in Quincy prepared a great homecoming. Totlton’s first Solemn High Mass in Saint Boniface Church. Tolton soon received his orders from the Dioceses of Alton. He would be appointed as the priest to St. Joseph church.

Tolton saw amazing attendance to his services, the choir as well as the altar society consisted of both black and white members. St. Joseph once established as the Black Church in Quincy now was a place of welcoming for Quincians of all races. Tolton was spoken highly of in the newspapers of the time and was a sough after figure for public speaking around the area. Chicago even expressed interest in adopting Tolton to one of their parishes. Tolton’s success in Quincy soon led to fear by traditional White parishes who were intimidated by his success. This would come to a head when Father Michael Weiss was appointed as the Priest at St. Boniface. Weiss publicly stated that White citizens should not be apart of the Black church, declaring that that money put into the collection basket by white people at St. Joseph’s in reality belonged to the white parishes. Weiss continued to suggest that Tolton should go elsewhere. Weiss being the dean of Quincy had considerable pull with the Bishop of the Diocese. Tolton was once called to the Bishop where we was informed to stop luring white parishioners into his church, and if he could not minister to only African American’s he should go somewhere else. This conflict and persecution weighed heavy on Tolton, but he was committed to his assignment at St. Joseph and continued to serve his impoverished parishioners.

Controversy surrounded Tolton again in 1889 when the daughter of a distinguished Quincy Man sought to marry a Black man. The word was put out to Quincy priests that this marriage should not take place…however Tolton apparently didn’t get the memo. The marriage was carried out in Gus’ church and public outcry followed that the marriage of one of Quincy’s “well do do” was married in what was widely recognized as the Negro Church. These events spawned many a letter to the Bishop who caving into public pressure recommended that Tolton not rock the boat so to speak on issues such a integration. Gus pleaded to Cardinal in Rome that he could no longer continue his mission in Quincy due to the circumstances, soon his wish to be transferred to Chicago would become a reality. He slipped out of town quietly one evening with the belief that he had failed to do his assigned task within Quincy. As Tolton became settled in Chicago he worked tirelessly for his impoverished parishioners,  on some occasions a chair was retrieved so that Tolton could sit down and continue his sermons. Tolton continued his tireless efforts until his untimely death at age 43,  believed to be caused by a combination of heat stroke and uremia (an illness associated with kidney failure). It was Tolton’s wish to be buried in Quincy, a place of both adversity and triumph, but in the end the catalyst that helped him fulfill his dream in life. A large funeral was held at St. Peter’s Church and finally Father Augustine Tolton, he first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States was laid to rest in St. Peter’s Cemetery.

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Sources:

“Father Augustine Tolton First Black Priest”
; http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~momonroe/tolton.htm

They Called Him Father Gus by Father Roy Bauer, Pastor of St. Peter Church, Quincy, Illinois. http://www.cospq.org/Parish%20History/Tolton%20Biography.htm

“From Slave to Priest; A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton”
by Sister Caroline Hemesath. order online

Augustine Tolton
; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_Tolton

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