The Venerable Father Augustus Tolton (April 1, 1854 — July 9, 1897) was the first Black man to be ordained a priest in the United States.
He was born into slavery in Missouri to parents who were slaves. He was baptized as a Catholic with his parents’ master’s wife as his godmother. It is a matter of debate about how his family was freed. The current consensus seems to be that his father ran away to become a soldier in the Union Army. His mother ran away later with him and his siblings. His father died of dysentery before the war ended.
Venerable Augustus, his mother and his siblings settled in Quincy, Illinois. There he and his siblings worked in a cigar factory. After his brother died, the parish priest decided to invite him to study at the local Catholic school. This was a controversial decision because of his race. Some parishioners didn’t want a black child going to school with their white children. The priest stood by his decision, however, and supported Augustus through school.
After graduation, he applied to many American seminaries, all of whom rejected him. The same parish priest who had helped him get into the Catholic School helped him get to Rome where he was ultimately ordained in 1886. Venerable Augustus wanted to be sent to the African missions, but he was instead sent back to the US, right back to Quincy where his story started.
From the start of his work as a priest, he had trouble from the white parishioners and from local Black Protestants. Perhaps due to these troubles, when he was reassigned to Chicago he took up the mission of starting a “national parish” for Black Catholics in the South Side.
St. Monica’s Catholic Church at 36th and Dearborn St. was Venerable Augustus Tolton’s parish. He was very popular for his preaching and his lovely singing voice (which was an important trait in the old school Latin Mass where the priest sang a lot during the service). It was not uncommon to see Catholics of all races fill the pews of his church.
Sadly, Venerable Augustus collapsed and died of an unknown illness during a heatwave in 1897 at only 43 years old. He had been sickly for the previous couple of years. The parish he worked to build closed in 1924 because of lack of attendance as Black Catholics in Chicago decided to worship at other parishes.
In 2010, his cause for canonization was officially opened. As of this writing, it is currently waiting for Congregation for the Causes of Saints to work his cause through. The next steps would be beatification and canonization.
The Venerable Augustus Tolton, pray for us!