In 1881, black Catholics in Chicago founded a congregation called St. Augustine and began holding services in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, located on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Eldredge Court. According to Father Tolton he arrived to find that the black Catholics in Chicago were scattered and “were fast drifting in protestantism…” He began holding services with 20 people and after four months of “hard work and prayer” he had succeeded in gaining back 200 or more people.
Father Tolton purchased land on the corner of 36th and Dearborn and construction began on a new church in 1891. Unfortunately, Father Tolton’s parish was poor and he struggled to find money to pay for the building project. He said in an interview that in order to continue the payments on the property, “I must get up fairs and entertainments and keep the ball rolling in order that the people will not get discouraged.” He was also forced to go back to lecturing around the country in order to raise money for the parish.
On January 14, 1894, Father Tolton dedicated his church to St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Services began in the church immediately after the dedication despite the fact that it remained unfinished. Construction on the church stopped after two years because of a lack of money so a temporary roof was put on the building and the lower level was used for Mass.
Father Tolton struggled not only to pay for the church, but also with the poverty that surrounded him. Money collected for the construction of the church was often used to provide material assistance to his parishioners in the form of food, clothing and medicine.
Father Tolton shared in the poverty of his congregation. A letter written by Mary C. Elmer, who worked with the Visitation and Aid Society in Chicago, sheds light on the reality of Father Tolton’s life. She wrote, “Poor father — it seems strange after all the ‘gush’ we read from week to week in the papers about the ‘dear negro’ he is left to struggle on almost alone; in poverty and humility grappling with the giant task of founding a church and congregation in Chicago. We who come in contact with him in our labors, and are the witnesses of his ardent charity and self-denying zeal feel ourselves privileged to bow the knee for his saintly blessings.”
Father Tolton was under an enormous amount of stress and it seems to have taken a toll on his health. The exact date is unknown, but sometime around 1895, Father Tolton went on leave in an attempt to regain his health and Father Daniel Riordan temporarily took over the pastorate of St. Monica’s.