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Today in History: America’s First Black Priest Celebrates Mass in New York
Today (July 11), back in 1886, a young man named Fr. Augustus Tolton celebrated his first Solemn High Mass in the US at St. Benedict the Moor Church in New York City, for a large congregation. It was a historic moment, because Augustus Tolton, a former slave, was the first black priest in the United States.
Ven. Tolton, who is now being considered for sainthood, had a truly remarkable life, one in which he too often encountered as obstacles the very worst of human nature; but his steady faith and kindness, amidst persecution and disappointments that could understandably have embittered him, ended up inspiring thousands. Like Jesus Christ, Tolton repaid injury with charity, and converted hearts because of it.
Augustus “Gus” Tolton’s history reveals the ugliest parts of America’s history, but also its heroes. Tolton himself, who struggled through slavery, poverty, intense racism, great difficulties finding a seminary (every US seminary rejected him based on race, so he had to go to the more open-minded Vatican), and bad health, was the greatest hero of all. But his brave and uncomplaining mother, his friends and family, the priests who wouldn’t let him give up on his dream of priesthood, and the large crowds of both white and black Americans who came to hear him preach also provide praiseworthy examples.
Today, July 11, is also the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, father of Western monasticism. Benedict’s famous motto was “Ora et labora,” which means “Pray and work.” Those three little words also sum up the life of Augustus Tolton. Always throughout his life, Augustus worked intensely and prayed fervently.
“[Britannica.com] Tolton was born into slavery. His parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane (née Chisley) Tolton, were baptized Catholics who had been granted permission to wed by the neighbouring Catholic families who owned them. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Tolton’s father escaped enslavement to join the Union army and was subsequently killed in battle. Soon after Peter Paul’s escape, Tolton’s mother fled with her three children at night and, aided by a handful of Union soldiers, crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. They soon settled in the town of Quincy, where they joined a Catholic church whose congregation largely consisted of German immigrants.
Tolton was encouraged by his mother to pursue an education. When he attempted to enter local schools, however, he faced harassment and discrimination by classmates and their parents, and his education in both public and private schools was limited. Discussions with his pastor, [Irish] Father Peter McGirr, [Tolton’s firmest friend and champion,] inspired Tolton to consider entering the priesthood, yet no American seminary would admit a Black student. Tolton was therefore tutored privately by local priests until St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) admitted him in 1878 as a special student. In 1880, with the support of McGirr and other priests in Quincy, Tolton began studying for the priesthood at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome [where he was welcomed]. After six years of study, Tolton was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886.”
National Catholic Register notes that Tolton loved his time in Rome, and that he was popular among his fellow students and respected by professors. But now he had to return to the United States and face once again all the heartache of racism. “Fr. Gus” didn’t complain or feel sorry for himself, though. And his courage received an immediate reward when he arrived back in his hometown of Quincy—a crowd of people, including white and black residents, both Catholics and non-Catholics, was waiting to greet him.
Writing of his first Mass in Quincy, Tolton said, “Everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all the others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface, with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.” But that very popularity ended up drawing the ire of other priests, the very men who should have supported him most, and Augustus Tolton found himself being unfairly targeted yet again.
“Although there had been speculation that he would be sent on a mission to Africa, Tolton was assigned to the United States. He returned to the United States in July 1886, delivering his first [M]ass at St. Benedict the Moor, a largely Black church in New York City, before returning to his hometown of Quincy as pastor at the mainly Black St. Joseph Church. In Quincy Tolton became such a popular preacher that he attracted some members of local white—mostly German or Irish—congregations; he therefore also faced discrimination from other local priests, who resented what they perceived as competition.
The St. Augustine Society, an African American Catholic charitable organization, contacted Tolton about moving to Chicago to help its members found a congregation. In late 1889 Rome granted Tolton a transfer to Chicago, where he became the city’s first African American priest and was granted jurisdiction by the archbishop over all of Chicago’s Black Catholics. At the beginning he ministered to a Black congregation that met in the basement of Old St. Mary’s Church. Through the combined efforts of Tolton and the St. Augustine Society, as well as a private gift, enough money was raised to build most of the structure for a church building, and in 1893 Tolton held mass in the new St. Monica Church on Chicago’s South Side. Tolton soon developed a national reputation as a [priest] and as a public speaker, yet he devoted the majority of the remainder of his life to his congregants, most of whom lived in poverty, and to the completion of St. Monica Church. He died shortly after succumbing to heatstroke.”
What a truly great man, an American hero, was Fr. Augustus Tolton. No matter what hardships came in his way, he never stopped struggling and he never stopped loving God and God’s children. He fought for material freedom and then to set others free spiritually. Tolton didn’t convert everyone, of course—there will be racists and jealous backbiters as long as sin exists—but he touched countless lives for the better. He should be more known and loved, and his intercession sought by Americans during this dark time in our country’s history. Augustus Tolton always turned evil into good, and we need his help desperately now.
Ven. Augustus Tolton, pray for us!