Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first black Catholic priest to be ordained in the United States, lived from 1854 to 1897. His parents were both slaves. He and his family eventually gained freedom in Illinois, where he was moved by the calling to become a priest. It was the Franciscans who welcomed him into St. Francis College (now Quincy University) in Quincy, Illinois, to begin his higher education when no seminary or religious order in the U.S. would accept him because of his race. With their help, he was finally able to go to Rome to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1886.
Tolton, who has long been recognized by the USF community as an inspirational figure—perhaps because of his strong connection to the Franciscans—moved deeper into the public eye in 2010 when Cardinal Francis George in Chicago announced a cause for Tolton’s canonization. As Fr. Tolton’s story was shared, the university also pulled him nearer in different ways.
In 2012, USF’s African American honor society was officially named the ”Augustus Tolton Honor Society.” The society honors the spirit of scholarship, leadership, and identity for high-achieving African American students at USF and nurtures intellectual ability, promotes leadership development, fosters knowledge of self, and provides service to the community while upholding the university’s values of respect, compassion, service and integrity.
The following excerpt from a Black History Month lecture about Fr. Augustus Tolton, “Love’s Legacy,” was presented by USF theology professor Dr. Tim Weldon and was published in Engaging Mind & Spirit 2019-20, Issue 1…
Born into the deeply conflicted state of Missouri in the antebellum year of 1854, in the town of Brush Creek—some 171 miles from St. Louis—Fr. Augustus Tolton’s early life was as traumatic as it was insufferable. His father and mother were enslaved. Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton had the infant Augustus baptized in St. Peter’s Catholic Church while the wife of the elder Tolton’s master’s wife, Savilla Elliot, served as the attendant godmother.
Now, the story of how the Tolton family won their freedom is remarkable in itself. In one reference, Father Tolton was to later tell friends that his father escaped slavery to enlist in the the Union Army while Fr. Tolton’s mother, Martha Jane, fled Missouri with Augustus and his three siblings. With the assistance of sympathetic Union soldiers and police, the Toltons were to cross the Mississippi River into the free state of Illinois.
In the Land of Lincoln, Martha Tolton quickly moved to Quincy and, with some of her children, started work at a tobacco company making cigars. In Quincy, Augustus met Father Peter McGirr, an immigrant priest from Northern Ireland. Fr. McGirr gave the young Augustus the opportunity to enroll in St. Peter’s parish school. The priest’s support was not without local contention as, according to one source, there were parishioners who objected to a black student at the parish school. Fr. McGirr remained steadfast in his support for the education of young Augustus. However, even with Fr. McGirr’s loyal backing, an older Augustus Tolton was not allowed to study for the priesthood in his own country.
It is here that we find the inviting subtext of Franciscan influence: How does one navigate hate? With love—with its foresight, with its action and subsequent momentum. How does one persevere—through real adversity—with the very laws of an entire country against you and with the dizzying weight of hateful glares upon you, town after town? Here, one is tempted—and understandably—to see survival as the goal.
But greater still was the thriving Fr. Tolton sought and accomplished. Through it all, he, like [USF students], studied and graduated from a Franciscan college (now university) and in the face of prejudice, was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome, Italy in 1886. After everything he had been through, Fr. Augustus would declare: “I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great to accept.”
Newly ordained, he was given his first mission: return home to Quincy, Illinois. His second mission was answering the call of still greater needs in Chicago. On the South side, at St. Monica’s parish, the first African American priest in our history became noted for his preaching eloquence, in and out of the pulpit. Parishioners, locals, and witnesses marveled at his dedication to all aspects of parish life. No wonder then that he would grow St. Monica’s to some 600 parishioners as it became a storied part of Chicago’s Catholic history.
Referred to as ‘inexhaustible’ or, simply tireless, Fr. Tolton was to die during an oppressive July heatwave in 1897 at the too-young age of 43. His example was and continues to be a never-ending gift.