It was not that long ago that slavery was legal in the U.S., and its horrors were accepted as normal. But in the middle of the 19th Century the slavery question in the U.S. was about to boil over into an overt civil war. There were an estimated 400,000 slaves in the U.S. at that time, and roughly 180,000 of them joined the Union Army. Among them was the father of Augustus Tolton, who escaped to join the Union Army but died of dysentery in Saint Louis just as he arrived. His wife, Martha then decided to escape with her children and head for Quincy, Illinois. It was a harrowing journey….you can find the story here.
Freedom, however, did not equal acceptance. Augustus was enrolled in St. Boniface Catholic school taught by the Notre Dame Sisters. Augustus’ school life was intolerable. The children tormented him, taunted him because he could not read, mimicked his accent, called him insulting names until he broke out in uncontrollable sobs. His presence in an all-white school caused an uprising, and eventually his mother agreed to withdraw him from the school. He went then to the colored school where he was equally ill-treated. You can read the rest of the story here.
And yet despite all of this, he went on to become a priest…..ordained in Rome, he had hoped to do mission work in Africa, but was sent back to the U.S. It is an amazing tale of perseverance in the face of shameful rejection not only from members of the community but by fellow members of the clergy. He was such a dynamic preacher that not only blacks but also many whites packed his church. This aroused the jealousy of quite a few white pastors, who wished to see him gone.
But he persevered until his death in 1897 (he died of heatstroke at the age of 43 returning from a retreat). His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in the area, and many of the faces in the crowd at his funeral Mass were white.
A simple marker was put on his grave. Later, it was replaced with a concrete cross that bears to this day, the following inscription:
Rev. Augustine Tolton
The First Colored Priest in the United States
Born in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri
April 1, 1854
Ordained in Rome, Italy, April 24, 1886
Died July 9, 1897
Requiescat in Pace
Tolton was honored in 2010 with a new Catholic high school (Father Augustine Tolton Regional Catholic High School) named after him in Columbia, Missouri.
On April 30, 2018, the Chicago archdiocese announced that the positio, described as “an official position paper” that “summarizes the examination of a candidate’s life, heroic virtue or martyrdom, and any alleged miracles insofar as research can be obtained,” was approved by the Vatican’s historical commission. This puts him on the path to Sainthood.
You can learn more about the cause for his Canonization here. And check out the book below by Deacon Harold Burke Shivers.
His inspiring story is also reminiscent of that of Servant of God Julia Greeley…..also born in to slavery, and now on her way to Sainthood.
Finding the grave of Servant of God Augustus Tolton:
Address: St. Peter Cemetery 3300 Broadway St, Quincy, IL 62301