Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), Ex-Slave, Priest, and Devoted Servant of God
By Alicia Washington
The story of Father Augustus Tolton is a twist on the classic rags to riches story. Though born into slavery (“rags”), he grew to be rich beyond compare. His riches did not come from monetary wealth, though; instead, he was rich in faith, an unrelenting faith that has led him to the road to sainthood.
Father Tolton was born into slavery in 1854, on a plantation in Missouri, which was owned by a white Catholic family. At the beginning of the Civil War, Father Tolton’s father escaped to join the Union Army but died soon after his escape. Father Tolton’s mother also made a decision to escape with a young Father Tolton and his siblings. They successfully escaped to Quincy, Illinois, and Father Tolton’s mother attributed their success to the goodness of the Lord. Father Tolton never forgot this example of God’s grace.
In Quincy, Illinois, Father Tolton was enrolled in an all-white Catholic School but was forced out by angry parents. Despite this adversity, a local priest mentored and tutored Father Tolton, and Father Tolton was confirmed in the Catholic faith at 16. Deeply devoted to his Catholic faith and the Lord, Father Tolton decided to pursue a vocation in the priesthood.
Father Tolton again faced racism within the Church when no American seminary accepted him. However, with the aid of a Franciscan priest, Father Tolton was accepted into a seminary in Rome. Following his studies and initial priesthood in Rome, he was sent back to America to serve as a priest in Quincy, Illinois, at a church that welcomed both black and white parishioners. Sadly, when a new priest who was assigned as the Dean of the Catholic clergy of the Quincy area arrived, Father Tolton faced more racial prejudice, enduring racial slurs from the new priest. The new priest also discouraged white Catholics from attending Father Tolton’s services. As a result, Father Tolton requested a transfer to the Archdiocese of Chicago, which was approved and where he was given full control of an African-American parish.
Once he was a priest in Chicago, he devoted himself to helping poor and unemployed black people in the community and his efforts led many to join the Catholic faith. His devotion to his faith and community earned him the nickname “Good Father Gus.” He also led the fundraising efforts to build a grand new church but limited funds led to a halt in construction. Father Tolton died at the age of 43 from heat stroke, which some attribute to his being worn out from his hard work.
Pope Francis advanced Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood in June 2019. May Father Tolton’s faith and devotion to God in the face of challenging circumstances be an inspiration to us all.
Official Prayer for Father Tolton’s Intercession:
O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time. We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.
Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.
Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.