Last week the Vatican issued a decree for the cause of Father Augustine Tolton in order to advance him to sainthood. Pope Francis has promoted Father Tolton to the rank and title of “Venerable Augustine Tolton.” Father Tolton was the first African-American diocesan priest here in the United States and the founder of the first black Catholic parish in America. It was never his intention to serve here as a priest in America; Father Tolton did so out of obedience. As it turns out, Father Tolton’s superiors were correct.
Augustine Tolton was born in 1854 as a slave in Missouri and baptized a Catholic because it was the faith of his family’s landowners. When his father left for the war, his mother rowed Augustine and his two siblings across the Mississippi River to settle in Illinois, which was a “free state”. They were fired upon, but made it safely to Illinois. While Augustine tried to study in America, he wound up studying in Rome where he was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 31. He had every intention of ministering in Africa as a missionary and even studied the culture and language of his ancestors. His religious superiors instead sent him back to Illinois where he endured prejudice and racism. From Rome Cardinal Giovannii Simeoni told the new Father Tolton “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. Let us see if America deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.”
I imagine this new priest questioned why he was never permitted to serve more easily in Africa and now would have to endure the cross of prejudice in America. However, Father Tolton remained committed to the hardship of obedience. In Chicago he eventually built the parish of Saint Monica, a North African saint and the mother of another African saint by the name of St. Augustine —perhaps one of the greatest minds the church has known. Fr. Tolton had been named after Saint Augustine. Like most saints, Father Tolton worked tirelessly and died of exhaustion at the age of 43 while walking down the street and ministering to his people.
The director of Catholic Studies at Loyola University said Fr. Augustine Tolton “went from slave to priest. He went from having lived amid the greatest sin in American culture to being a minister that would address that kind of moral crime. From prisoner to liberator.”