Father Augustus Tolton, the Roman Catholic Church’s first Black priest, who is slated to become the church’s first Black saint, was born into slavery in Missouri in 1854.
He was forced to attend seminary in Rome because no American school would admit him because of his race despite his intellect, special abilities (he spoke several languages) and his devotion to the church.
Tolton arrived in Rome in 1880, attended the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide and was ordained in 1885 at Basilica St. Lateran Church in Rome.
He had expected to be sent to Africa because of racism but Roman Catholic authorities believed it was time America lived up to its self-image as an enlightened, “Christian nation.” He was assigned to St. Peter Church in Quincy, Ill., where he had grown up after escaping slavery.
When he first arrived in America, however, he gave his first Mass on American soil at St. Benedict the Moor Church before a majority Black congregation in New York City.
It was the first time congregants had seen a Black Catholic priest. Many parishioners traveled from other towns and other states to see and hear him.
In Quincy, Ill., it was a different story.
He attempted to organize a parish and a school there but ran into resistance and prejudice.
After three years in Quincy, the Roman Catholic Church reassigned Father Tolton to Chicago. A parade welcomed him to the city.
In Chicago, he led a mission society in the basement of St. Mary’s parish, which led to the development of the Negro ‘national parish’ at St. Monica’s church at 36th and Dearborn streets in the South side.
With a congregation of 600 Black people, Tolton began to draw national attention.
He was acclaimed for his many talents, including singing, playing the accordion and for his beautiful artwork.
He was parish priest until his death in 1897 from heatstroke. Father Tolton was only 43.
Other events honoring Father Tolton also have taken place throughout Chicago, where he founded in 1889 the parish of St. Monica at 36th and Dearborn Streets for black Catholics.
On November 4, 2011, Chicago dedicated “Honorary Father Augustus Tolton Street.” The honorary street sign is located at the corners of 41st Street between State Street and Michigan Avenue.
On June 12, Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Tolton’s “heroic virtues,” which is a step in the process toward sainthood, following a five-year investigation by the church, which began in 2010 when Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George announced Tolton’s cause for canonization.
Pope Francis made Tolton venerable within the church, which is two steps away from canonization.
Now the church has opened the door to his sainthood.