Born in Brush Creek, Missouri on April 1, 1854, John Augustus Tolton began life with the odds stacked against him. He began life without his God-given rights of freedom, dignity and equality; he began life not as a human being, but as someone’s personal property-as a slave of a white Catholic family.
Augustus Tolton’s early childhood coincided with the Civil War; his father, Peter Paul Tolton escaped slavery to join the Union Army while his mother, Martha, remained the maid of her owners. Some black people were freed during these times, but most lived a life of inhumane cruelty and bondage. Many were baptized as Catholics, yet they still suffered in a way that was not condoned by God. Augustus Tolton was raised in the Roman Catholic Church; his mother was baptized a Catholic because her owners were of the Catholic faith.
Despite adversities, human cruelties and hatred by his fellow man, Augustus Tolton had the love of Jesus Christ in his heart. In 1862, he and his family found the courage to escape slavery by bravely crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. According to one report, when they reached freedom, Tolton’s mother turned to him and said, “John, boy, you’re free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord.” Perhaps this is when John Augustus Tolton decided to give his life to God. Perhaps this is when he realized that God is good all the time… all the time God is good. John took his mother’s advice and never forgot God’s Grace and Mercy.
Even though racial conflict haunted Tolton most of his life, he remained devoted to service in the Catholic Church. With the blessing of a loving man of God, Fr. Peter McGirr, Tolton was allowed to attend St. Peter’s Catholic School, an all-white parish school in Quincy, Illinois. Fr. McGirr and others mentored and tutored him as they began to realize that Tolton was destined to greatness. After Augustus entered St. Peter, Fr. McGirr, who was the school’s pastor, baptized him and prepared him for his first Holy Communion. God indeed had a plan for this young black man’s life and the will of God would be done.
Augustus Tolton devoted himself to serving God by making his life a living example of God’s words. Unfortunately, no American seminary would accept a black man. Without allowing his faith in the Lord to falter, Tolton graduated from high school and Quincy College. In 1880, with Fr. McGirr’s continued support, Augustus began his studies for priesthood in Rome. Prayer to God and trust that God answers prayer guaranteed the success of Tolton as he completed his training. He was an excellent student because everything he did and all he accomplished were to glorify God.
Augustus Tolton, born a commodity to be bought and sold… owned as a mere piece of property… blazed a trail while following God’s calling. He learned to speak fluent English, German, Italian and Latin, Greek and African dialects. He became an accomplished and talented musician with a beautiful voice. For the first time in his life, Augustus experienced racial harmony and total acceptance within the church. By the Grace of God, he finally came to experience the love of his Church, the Catholic Church. In 1886, after six years of study in the seminary, Tolton was ordained to the priesthood in Rome at the tender age of 31. He had expected to serve in an African parish; surprisingly, he was directed to return to the United States to serve the black community. Fr. Augustus Tolton became the first Black American priest in the United States of America! Born as a slave in America, he became an American hero! For a brief moment in history, racial differences that only ran skin deep were forgotten because of this great man of God. Tolton held his first public Mass at St. Boniface church in Quincy, Illinois and eventually he became pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church and school.
Racial tension in Quincy still ran rampant and Father Tolton accepted a reassignment to Chicago in order to fulfill his calling to serve God. He gave service by helping the poor and sick, feeding the hungry and winning souls for God. His endless, tireless and devoted work led many to the Faith. In 1897, the first black Catholic priest in America, lovingly known as “Good Father Gus,” died unexpectedly while on a priest’s retreat. Tolton was only 43 years old, yet he left a legacy that will live forevermore. He was called by God, but not chosen by the world. He refused to allow himself to be deterred from the path that had been mapped out for him by God… a path not yet well-worn.
This beautiful new school, Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School, is named in honor of Father Tolton. Tolton Catholic celebrates each of our differences because our differences make us unique individuals. We celebrate our divine likenesses, because our likenesses make us all God’s children. We celebrate our common goal which is the same as was Augustus Tolton’s: to profess our love of God and to thank Him for giving His Son, Jesus Christ, so that we may be saved. Hand in hand with each other, we will continue in the tradition of Father Augustus Tolton: “Follow not the well-worn path. Go instead where there is no path, and blaze a trail.”
Written by Clifani “Lacey” Stephen – Class of 2014