November is celebrated as Black Catholic History month. As one way of contributing to this observance, I want to draw your attention to an important chapter of our diocesan history. It is the story of Father Augustine (Augustus) Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States.
His story is well known in many parts of our country, but is sometimes overlooked or taken for granted here. We can be proud that Father Tolton is part of our diocesan Catholic family tree. In her sesquicentennial history of the diocese, Come to the Water, Sister Susan Karina Dickey, OP, gives a full account of the life of Father Tolton. I have borrowed from her work for this summary.
Augustine Tolton was born in 1854 to Catholic parents who were slaves in Ralls County, Mo. His father ran away to St. Louis, hoping to aid the Union cause in the Civil War, and he died there a short time later. To escape falling into the hands of slave traders, Mrs. Tolton fled with her three children across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. They settled in Quincy where she was able to find a job. The family joined St. Boniface Parish, and Augustine was enrolled in school there. Even though he became proficient in German as well as English, he was made to feel unwelcome by a number of the white students and their parents. Soon all the African-American students were forced to leave the school.
After several years, Augustine found a welcome in St. Peter School in Quincy. There he was an altar server and was confirmed. It was there, too, that he began to discuss with the pastor the growing sense that he was being called to the priesthood.
While encouraging the young man to nurture his vocation, the pastor tried in vain to find a seminary in this country that would accept him, even though Bishop Baltes was willing to sponsor him. The Franciscans at St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) taught Augustine Latin and philosophy. Through their efforts, he was eventually admitted to a seminary in Rome that had been set up to prepare priests for work in mission lands. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1886, and he returned to Quincy to celebrate his first Mass.
Sadly, the prejudice that Augustine had experienced from laity and clergy alike as he sought to respond to the call to priesthood remained a fact of life in Illinois (and in so many places in this country) as he began his priestly service. He was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Quincy, a mission that had recently been set up to serve African-American Catholics. Under Father Tolton's leadership, and with the help of two School Sisters of Notre Dame, the parish and the school began to grow. Because the priest became known as a good preacher and an understanding confessor, members of the larger community began to attend St. Joseph. Father Tolton's growing popularity with local Catholics of all races, as well as his growing notoriety outside the diocese, was a cause of jealousy among some of the clergy. The priest was pressured to transfer to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1889, where he was asked to help develop a parish for African-American Catholics. He died a relatively young man in 1897, and his body was returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter Cemetery.
All of us in this diocese can be proud of the priestly life and ministry of Father Augustine Tolton. In what may seem an unlikely context to us, the experience of slavery and racial prejudice, he heard the call of Jesus and accepted the grace to respond to his vocation.
Some church leaders and some fellow Catholics did everything they could to discourage his response in faith. Because he followed the Lord's own example of humble service and devotion to the will of the Father, many were drawn to accept salvation in Christ. His life encourages us all to believe that young people - and those of us not so young - can be generous in following Jesus, even in a culture that often does not seem hospitable to the Gospel.