When Augustus Tolton received the oil of the priesthood on his hands on April 24th, 1886, at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, there must have been tears in his eyes.
This day had been a long time coming. Perhaps he was thinking about all the many dangers, toils, and snares through which the grace of God had brought him—he, once a slave, now a priest of God.
Augustus Tolton was born into bondage in Missouri in 1854. His mother, Martha, had been a Catholic since her youth, and—it being customary for slaves to take their owners’ faith—Augustus, too, was baptized. His father escaped to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War, and died not long after. Martha took her children and crossed the Mississippi River to freedom in Quincy, Illinois.
Even in this “free” state, the Tolton children were forced to leave the first school they attended due to opposition from white families. But with the unwavering support of several religious sisters and priests, Augustus was able to enroll in a different school, graduate, and even attend college.
All this time a call was growing in his heart. The young former slave wanted to be a priest. But no American seminaries were accepting black men.
God’s will always finds a way, however. With the assistance of a determined Franciscan priest, Augustus was able to attend seminary in Rome, where he was at last treated as a brother and an equal. Ordained at the Easter Vigil, he celebrated his first Mass the next day at St. Peter’s Basilica.
He was expecting to be sent to the missions in Africa, but God had other plans for him: he was to return to the United States as the first black priest in American history.
Fr. Tolton started off his ministry in Quincy before transferring to Chicago in 1889. Here his mission was to build up a black Catholic parish, St. Monica, on the south side of the city—a project which started with thirty parishioners who had no building of their own.
Known for his celestial singing voice, powerful preaching, and unstoppable work ethic, Fr. Tolton led St. Monica’s for seven years and opened a new church building in 1891. Both in Quincy and Chicago, he battled the poverty and moral degradation afflicting the black community, as well as the racism of his day, with a spirit of patience, determination, and mercy.
“Good Father Gus” died of illness and heat stroke at the young age of forty-three, beloved by those who knew him and the Church he served. He is on his way to sainthood, having been declared “Venerable” in 2019.
Fr. Tolton’s story is a shining testament to the power not just of perseverance, but far more: the power of forgiveness.
With all the unfair treatment he experienced, it would have been very easy for him to embrace anger, resentment, and hatred towards others. But he chose a different path. The charity of Christ found fertile ground in his heart, and he was able to fulfill his dreams of the priesthood while treating all—even those who thought him less than human—with mercy and love. He was a light in a dark place, a man of uncommon strength who truly fulfilled Christ’s command to “love one another, as I have loved you.”