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America’s most famous Black Catholic priest, Augustus Tolton

Father Augustus Tolton (Photo Source: YouTube)

Father Augustus Tolton (Photo Source: YouTube)

The United States has an estimated 3 million Blacks who are Catholic and the recent visit of Pope Francis has put a spotlight on the Catholic faith. The numbers of Catholic clergy who are Black has always been a subject of some controversy. In 2012, out of the 40,000 Catholic priests in America there were only about 250 who were Black; additionally, out of 434 American Catholic bishops only 16 were Black.

The path to Black priesthood in the United States started with a former slave named Augustus Tolton. He was born in Missouri in 1854 to Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane Chisley and was raised as a Catholic. During the Civil War, his father escaped from the plantation and joined the Union Army. At some point, his mother was also able to escape with all her children. His mother was able to meet with a column of Union soldiers who allowed her to cross the Mississippi River into the free state of Illinois. The family settled in Quincy, Illinois and was befriended by a Catholic priest who gave Augustine the opportunity for a Catholic school education. However, his attendance was met with controversy by White parents and he had to be directly tutored by the priests. After finishing his studies, Tolton wanted to enter the priesthood but was denied admittance to every seminary school in America to which he applied.

Eventually, through the help of sympathetic priests it was arranged for him to study in Rome. Tolton attended St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) and the Pontifical Urbaniana University. He became fluent in Italian, Latin and Greek and was ordained a priest in 1886 at the age of 31. Tolton fully expected to be sent to Africa as a missionary but was instead ordered back to America to serve as a priest. He held his first public Mass in Quincy, Illinois and tried to organize the Black community into a parish but was met with resistance by both White and Black residents. Tolton was then reassigned to Chicago and started the Negro National Parish of St. Monica’s Church, which was located at 36th and Dearborn Streets on the South Side of Chicago. The church grew to a congregation of 600 and soon gained the attention of the Catholic Church hierarchy. During an oppressive heat wave in Chicago, Tolton became ill and died at the age of 43 in 1897.

In 2010 ,because of his good work and virtue, Tolton was considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church designated him a “Servant of God” and in 2014 his investigative file was sent to the Vatican for the process of research by theologians of the Church. If approved by this special investigative body, it will then be sent to the Pope who must declare Tolton venerable and worthy to be named a saint.