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Celebrating Priesthood - Father Augustine Tolton

Friday, November 27, 2009
On 20th January 2009 Barack Obama was sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States of America (although the Chief Justice flubbed the wording and it had to be repeated). The election of an African-American to the highest political position in the land, if not the world, is the pinnacle of the story of a people that had been in slavery less than one-hundred and fifty years before and could be treated as second-class citizens only 41 years before. The barriers broken by the former Senator for Illinois are immense but he is not the first ground breaking African-American to rise to prominence from the Prairie State. In 1886, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a young man who had been born a slave was ordained a priest. His name was Augustine Tolton and he was the first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States.

Augustine, named after the great African Bishop and Doctor of the Church, was born in Missouri in 1856. His parents were slaves, therefore Augustine was also the 'property' of their master. The Toltons' master, Stephen Elliot, was a Catholic and his wife stood as Godmother for Augustine at his baptism. When the southern states seceded from the Union, Missouri declared itself neutral in the civil war which followed. Nevertheless, Augustine's father escaped to join the Union army and his mother escaped later, with the Tolton children, across the Mississippi into the city of Quincy in the free state of Illinois, where they found work in the cigar factory.

Whilst in Quincy an Irish Priest, Father Peter McGirr, befriended the Toltons and arranged or the children to attend. St. Peter’s parochial school. Racial biases still ran strong during the Civil War era, and his going to this school caused controversy among those in the parish. This prejudice was further stoked up when Augustine began to serve mass in the Parish. Despite the backlash Fr McGirr, sensing Augustine's vocational call, encouraged him to finish his education and arranged for him to attend the Franciscan-run local college. In spite of adversity and racism, Augustine finished school and graduated from Quincy College.

As he prepared to enter the priesthood, it became clear that the racial barriers still existed. Every single American seminary rejected him as a student, even the one that trained priests to minister to the black community! Fr McGirr continued to help him and arranged for him to study in Rome. He attended the prestigious Pontifical Urbaniana University and became fluent in Italian, as well as studying Latin and Greek. Augustine had expected to serve in an African mission but was informed shortly after his ordination that his mission would be to “negroes in the United States.”

He returned to Quincy and was appointed to serve at St. Joseph's Negro Church. He was such an articulate and intelligent preacher that many people, both white and black, were soon flocking to the parish and this caused great controversy. He met hostility from both white Catholics, of mainly German stock, and Protestant blacks, who did not want him trying to convert parishioners to another denomination. The new dean of the parish, who wanted him to turn away white worshippers, complained, and Augustine, not wanting to be a source of disunity within the Church in the city, asked to be moved.

After reassignment to Chicago, Fr Tolton first led a mission society, St. Augustine's, that met in the basement of St. Mary's Church. He led the development and administration of the Negro "national parish" of St. Monica's Catholic Church. Fr Tolton's success at ministering to black Catholics quickly earned him national attention. "Good Father Gus", as he was called by many, was known for his "eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent for playing the accordion".

Augustine began to be plagued by bouts of ill-health in 1893. He collapsed and died as a result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1897, at the age of 43. He was buried in Quincy, in the priests' cemetery at St. Peter's Catholic Church, where the seeds of his vocation had been sown. Alas the racist attitudes of people followed him to the grave and his burial in a "white" graveyard raised eyebrows. It has been suggested that Augustine is inaccurately credited with being the first Catholic priest of African-American descent, due to the ordinations of the mixed-race Healy brothers. Much of the debate centres on the cultural and racial identification issues, which I feel unqualified to comment on but one thing is certain: Augustine Tolton was the first Catholic Priest in the United States to identify and be identified openly as an African-American. He demonstrates that God calls who He calls to the priesthood, regardless of race, background or the dominant social sensibilities of the time. His witness, ministry and preaching was a milestone in race relations both in the United States and the Church.

Mark Davoren


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