Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Servant of God Augustus Tolton
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Servant of God Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), born to enslaved parents, if canonized, stands to be the United States’ first African American Saint.
Tolton was born the second of three children to Peter Paul Tolton and his Catholic wife, Martha Jane Chisley. The punishment for an attempted escape by a slave at the time included public whipping or the amputation of a foot. As the Civil Wat loomed, Tolton’s father nonetheless ran away to join the Union Army and died soon thereafter. Martha then managed to flee to Quincy, Illinois, a stop on the Underground Railroad, with the three children.
Young Augustus worked stemming tobacco in a cigar factory before his mother decided to enroll him as a student at Quincy’s Saint Boniface. His presence at the all-white school caused an upraor. He was driven out within a month and did not resume his education until four years later, at a local all-black public school. A sympathetic priest saw to it that Augustus was then admitted to a school run by the Notre Dame Sisters.
He learned the prayers of the Latin Mass in order to become an altar server, studied hard, and continued working at the factory. He was confirmed on June 12, 1870, at the local parish of Saint Peter.
A vocation was forming, but in the late 1800s not a single United States seminary was open to a black man, Tolton worked as a tavern-cleaner, saddle-stitcher, and soda-bottler, receiving piecemeal tutoring at one point from an alcoholic priest.
In 1878, he was at last taken on as a student by the Franciscans at what is now Quincy University. He then, almost miraculously, ended up studying formally in Rome. His letter of recommendation described the twenty-six-year-old as “a reverent acolyte, a devoted son, a faithful worker, a diligent student, and a zealous lay apostle.”
He was ordained at the Easter Vigil in 1886 at Saint John Lateran. He had expected a post in Africa, but instead was returned home. On July 11, 1886, before a full house at New York City’s Saint Benedict the Moor, he celebrated the first Mass by a black priest on United States soil. The first blessing he administered that day was upon his beloved mother.
Back in Illinois, he was assigned to the diocese of what is now Springfield, and served for a time at a parish in Quincy. He made few conversions and suffered cruel racial injustice from some fellow clergy and the community.
He was moved to Chicago in December 1889. There he lived simply, unflaggingly served the poor, and oversaw construction of Saint Monica’s, which he envisioned as a kind of black national Catholic parish church.
The church was never completed. Father Talton died at forty-three, in 1897, ostensibly of heatstroke. One wonders if the truer reason wasn’t a heart overworked to the point of collapse. The generational trauma, the seeming failure, a kind of dreadful lifelong exile: How deeply Father Talton must have prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.
His Requiem Masses-one in Chicago, one back in Quincy, where he had asked to be interred-were nonetheless thronged, not least by his fellow priests. It was as if, even as he drew his last breath, his greatness was dawning. ”The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery-that of the mind and that of the body,” he once observed. “She endeavors to free us of both.”