By Frederick H. Lowe
Father Augustus Tolton, the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest, who is slated to become a saint, was forced to attend seminary in Rome because no American school would admit him despite his intellect, special abilities (he spoke several languages) and his devotion to the church because of his race.
Tolton, a former slave from Missouri, attended seminary at The Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide.
He arrived in Rome on March 21, 1880. Church officials ordained him as a priest on Holy Saturday, April 24, 1885, at Basilica St. Lateran Church in Rome.
Tolton lived in Rome for six years as one of 70 seminarians who attended the school and had come from different parts of the world. The other seminarians called him Gus, for U.S.
What they didn’t call him was “nigger” or go out of their way to make him feel uncomfortable or unwanted, according to his biography.
In his free time, he walked around the neighborhoods of the “Eternal City”, sketching more than 600 churches and the city’s architecture in his artist’s notebook.
Tolton’s career will soon make another dramatic turn.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Tolton’s “heroic virtues,” which is a step in the process toward sainthood, following a five-year investigation by the church, which began in 2010 when Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George announced Tolton’s cause for canonization. Pope Francis made Tolton venerable within the church, which is two steps away from canonization.
On November 4, 2011, Chicago dedicated “Honorary Father Augustus Tolton Street.”The honorary street sign is located at the corners of 41st Street between State Street and Michigan Avenue.
Other events honoring Father Tolton also have taken place throughout Chicago, where he founded in 1889 the parish of St. Monica at 36th and Dearborn Streets for black Catholics. He was parish priest until his death in 1897 from heatstroke. Father Tolton was only 43.
Born into slavery
Tolton’s historical journey began on a small plantation in 1854 in Monroe County, Missouri, where slaveholders that owned his family baptized him a Catholic.
In a dangerous escape to the Underground Railroad city of Quincy, Ill., from Missouri, his mother led the family to freedom. Confederate soldiers shot at the family, but no one was wounded.
His father escaped slavery – and probably underwrote the family’s successful escape. He was a member of the Colored Infantry in the Union Army. He reportedly died in a prison camp in Arkansas, according to The Catholic Telegraph, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
After ordination, Father Tolton believed he would be assigned to a parish in Africa because of racism which was sewn deeply into America’s fabric. Catholic leaders, however, had other plans. They sent him to U.S.
Roman Catholic authorities believed it was time America lived up to its self-image as an enlightened, “Christian nation.”He was assigned to St. Peter Church in Quincy, Illinois, where he had grown up after escaping slavery.
When he first arrived in America, however, he gave his first Mass on American soil at St. Benedict the Moor Church before a majority black congregation in New York City.
It was the first time congregants had seen a black Catholic priest. Many parishioners traveled from other towns and other states to see and hear him.
In Quincy, it was a different story. The new pastor of St. Boniface Church referred to Tolton as that “nigger priest.” The Catholic Church discouraged blacks from attending Mass. In Chicago, priests in white parishes often called blacks “niggers” and told them they weren’t welcome to pray to God among the white Christian worshippers.
Blacks were so poor that it was heartbreaking. They attended Mass to keep warm because they did not have shoes or adequate clothing.
After three years in Quincy, the Roman Catholic Church reassigned Father Tolton to Chicago. A parade welcomed him to the city.
Now the church has opened the door to his sainthood.