Father Tolton was assigned to St. Joseph’s Church because it was the only black church in the Diocese of Alton, but the assignment also made sense because Father Tolton had actively participated in establishing the parish before entering the seminary.
After the Civil War a number of blacks Catholics came to Quincy. Many joined St. Peter’s Parish, but prejudice forced them out, leaving them without a place to worship. In 1877, Father Michael Richardt, OFM (who later became Tolton’s philosophy teacher), met Augustus and asked for his help in creating a parish for black Catholics in Quincy.
Augustus gathered together a group of children, both Catholic and Protestant, and in October 1877, Father Richardt opened a Sunday school. The building used for the school was a former Protestant church, located on Seventh and Jersey streets that had originally been purchased by St. Boniface Parish for use as classrooms. The children liked the Sunday school so much that Father Richardt petitioned to open a free day school.
Father Richardt appealed to the School Sisters of Notre Dame to provide a teacher and Sister Herlinde Sick, Augustus’ teacher at St. Peter’s School, was assigned to operate the school. The school opened on Feb. 11, 1878 with 21 children. By the end of the year the enrollment grew to 60 students.
Shortly after the school opened it met with opposition from black Methodist and Baptist congregations in the city, who were afraid of losing members to the new church. In April 1878, seven children from the school were baptized. Shortly afterward the two groups held a protest meeting at which they unanimously resolved to send their children to the public school. The Protestant groups worked to keep black children out of the Catholic school, but despite their attempts, the school continued to operate.
In 1880, the Franciscan provincial ordered the friars, including Father Richardt, to give up the school. Father Theodore Bruener, pastor of St. Boniface Church, did not want to abandon the mission so he began holding worship services for the black community in the same building used for the school.
The building was in need of repair, so Father Bruener began soliciting money and donations to restore the structure. The repairs cost $1,000 and money was raised in a variety of ways: private donations were solicited, the School Sisters sponsored two entertainments and donations were received from Bishop Peter J. Baltes, Bishop of the Diocese of Alton and several local priests.
The church was dedicated to St. Joseph on Jan. 15, 1882. Father Bruener and his assistants held services and catechism classes each Sunday and Sister Herlinde continued operating the day school. After several years Father Bruener petitioned the bishop for a resident priest, because the schedule of operating two parishes was becoming too difficult. The request was denied, but he managed to keep the parish going until July 26, 1886 when Father Tolton was assigned to the parish.