The First Black Catholic Priest in the United States

FROM SLAVE TO PRIEST. By Sister Caroline Hemesath, S.S.F. (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80522; 1973/2006 reprint), 251 pages, HB, $17.95

This book is a reprint of 1973. The Rev. Augustine Tolton, ordained in 1886, was the first black Catholic priest in the United States. There were a few mulattos ordained slightly ahead of him, but he was the first fully black American to be ordained.

His parents, Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane Tolton, were Catholics in the state of Missouri; they were also slaves. Their three children (Augustine, Charles, and Anne) were baptized and, because their parents were slaves, they were slaves also. Before slavery was outlawed in 1863, Peter Paul left his family in order to escape to St. Louis to join the northern army so that he could be granted his freedom and return to look after his family. When he didn’t return, his wife took the children and escaped to Quincy, Illinois, where blacks were now safe. She learned, however, that her husband had been killed in the war.

Martha Jane and her sons (now 10 and 9 years old) had to get as much work as they could, and the salaries were very low. Augustine worked hard at different jobs, and used his free time also to get as much schooling as he could. Two Irish priests befriended Augustine and arranged for him to get as much tutoring as a few priests were able to spend time for. Two communities of Sisters also gave Augustine as much tutorial time as they could. Though he was of average intelligence, Augustine worked very hard at his studies. He was a pious young man, and loved to attend church and serve at Mass and help the priest around the rectory. He had his mind set from an early age, encouraged by his equally pious mother, that he would be a priest.

In his early twenties, when thoughts arose in his mind of applying for seminary training, he discovered that there was no seminary for blacks in the United States, and no seminary for whites that admitted blacks. Though the two Irish priests investigated the possibility of a seminary education, and the search was assisted by a community of German Franciscans who wanted to start a seminary for blacks but were not yet ready to do so, it seemed that Augustine’s dream was not going to be fulfilled.

There was a missionary seminary in Rome (the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide, founded by Pope Urban III) which taught students of all nations, black as well as white or yellow. The supporters of Augustine wrote many letters to bishops and to the Collegium, but it seemed that nothing would ever come of it. It was at times like this that Augustine was struck most by the thoughts of what he had endured by being a black in a society filled with prejudice and inhuman attitudes. White people rarely treated blacks justly or politely. Even many, perhaps most, white Catholics were in this group. Many whites refused to go to black churches and even tried as much as possible to keep blacks out of white churches. Only strong, convinced pastors were able to have mixed congregations, and there were not many such pastors.

Finally, however, a letter came from the Urbanum to the bishop in charge of Quincy that Augustine was admitted. He and his friends had saved up enough money for him to get to Rome. The four years Augustine spent there were the happiest of his life. He had learned to speak German, without a tutor, in the United States, and now added Italian and Spanish and French to his linguistic abilities. He also played the accordion, and the other seminarians kept wanting to hear it. And they called Augustine “Gus.” a sign of complete acceptance.

Graduates of the Urbanum were bound to go to the diocese picked out for them when they were ordained. Augustine had taken it for granted that he would be assigned a diocese in Africa, but was surprised to learn that the diocese which looked after Quincy was the diocese picked out for him. As pastor there he looked after all the blacks by providing Sunday Mass, Sunday Benediction, and Saturday Confessions. He also had a school for anyone who would come (most of the blacks could not even read and write). The people loved him. He was now back with his mother, brother, and sister. He had a beautiful voice, good for preaching and also for singing. His sermons were just what the people needed and wanted.

But there were problems. The blacks were heavily afflicted by poverty, which had a great effect on their way of life. The Catholic whites now wanted the blacks to go to only the one church, though many blacks lived a long distance away from it. They even failed to respect the Catholic blacks. And one German priest actually persecuted Augustine. Augustine therefore asked for another assignment, and was made the pastor of all the blacks in Chicago. He was 32 when he was ordained and 43 when he died. He had, therefore, relatively little time to live his priestly life. He started to collect money for a church for blacks, but it was always a problem to pay the bills. There were often more promises than payments. He was overworked, and his health began to fail.

When he died, the tributes paid to him by both blacks and whites were overwhelming. I would not be surprised if he were recommended for beatification some day.

Rev. Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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