“Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton; but black Catholics most probably have,” the Archbishop of Chicago wrote.
Born in Missouri on April 1, 1854, John Augustine Tolton fled slavery with his mother and two siblings in 1862 by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.
"John, boy, you're free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord," Tolton’s mother told him after the crossing, according to the website of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Chicago.
The young Tolton entered St. Peter’s Catholic School with the help of the school’s pastor, Fr. Peter McGirr. Fr. McGirr would later baptize him and instruct him for his first Holy Communion. Tolton was serving as an altar boy by the next summer. [Because that is what priests are supposed to do! And God bless these kinds of priests! You will read later the impact Fr. McGirr had on the young Augustine.]
The priest asked Tolton if he would like to become a priest, saying it would take twelve years of hard study.
The excited boy then said they should go to church and pray for his success.
After graduating from high school and Quincy College, he began his ecclesiastical studies in Rome because no American seminary would accept him on account of his race.
On April 24, 1886 he was ordained in Rome by Cardinal Lucido Maria Parocchi, who was then the vicar general of Rome. Newspapers throughout the U.S. carried the story. [As for the reason why newspapers carried the story, one can only speculate.]
Fr. Tolton was ordained for the southern Illinois Diocese of Quincy. Upon his return in July 1886, he was greeted at the train station “like a conquering hero,” the web site of St. Elizabeth’s Parish says. [Imagine the white supremacists seething in anger!]
“Thousands were there to greet him, led by Father McGirr. A brass band played church songs and Negro Spirituals. Thousands of blacks and whites lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the new priest wearing a black Prince Albert and a silk hat. People marched and cheered his flower-draped four-horse carriage. Children, priests and sisters left the school joining the procession heading towards the church.” [What a sight that must have been!]
Hundreds waited at the local church where people of all races knelt at the communion rail. [Knelt! They were not kneeling at the black priest, but at our Lord!]
Fr. Tolton served in Quincy before going to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. The new church was named for St. Monica [the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. See the coincidence?] and opened in 1893.
On July 9, 1897 Fr. Tolton collapsed during a hot day and died from sunstroke at the age of 43. [Probably died doing his duty.] Cardinal George explained that most priests in the nineteenth century died before their fiftieth birthday.
“Visiting the sick on a daily basis was risky in an age before antibiotics,” he explained. [Well, I know some priests who would not want to be assigned in rural parish because of the heat and are more concerned of the bad effects of the sun on their "doctor-treated" skin. But...I digress.]
The priest was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery just outside of Quincy, Illinois. [You can see his grave here.]
An investigation for canonization will collect evidence of Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues and will investigate claims of his miraculous intercession. (CNA)
You can read more on Fr. Augustine in this Wikipedia entry.
Priests who are exceptionally holy will always be remembered for their faithful witness to the vocation they have chosen. I know a couple who are fondly remembered by a lot of my parishioners.
Their sigh? "We don't have the same kind of priests like we used to." Well not really, I told them. There are still some and surprisingly, the younger generation of priests are more should we say "holier and more faithful".
Pray for Fr. Augustine to be raised to the altar.
Pray for more priests...holier priests!