Augustine Tolton, also known as Augustus Tolton, was a significant figure in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. He was born on April 1, 1854, in Brush Creek, Missouri, as a slave. His parents, Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley, were enslaved individuals on a plantation owned by Stephen Elliott, a Catholic politician.
During the American Civil War, Augustine’s father escaped to join the Union Army and died in battle. Following the war, Augustine and his mother made their way to Quincy, Illinois, where they found refuge with the local Catholic community. The Catholic priests and sisters in Quincy recognized Augustine’s intelligence and potential, and they provided him with educational opportunities.
Augustine expressed a strong desire to become a Catholic priest, but he faced numerous challenges due to racial discrimination in the seminary admissions process. After being rejected by multiple American seminaries, he pursued his studies in Rome at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. In 1886, he became the first African American priest to be ordained for the United States.
Returning to the United States, Father Augustine Tolton served as a priest in the Diocese of Alton, Illinois (later renamed the Diocese of Springfield). He faced racial prejudice and hostility from some individuals, but he persevered in his mission to serve God and his community. Father Tolton’s ministry primarily focused on the African American population, establishing St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Quincy as a center for their spiritual and social needs.
Father Tolton’s work and dedication earned him admiration and respect from people of all backgrounds. He advocated for racial equality and social justice, becoming a prominent voice for civil rights during his time. Unfortunately, Father Tolton’s life was cut short at the age of 43 when he collapsed from heatstroke and died on July 9, 1897.
Today, Father Augustus Tolton is recognized as a pioneer and a trailblazer, both within the Catholic Church and in the broader context of American history. His cause for canonization, the process by which the Catholic Church declares someone a saint, was officially opened in 2010. The Church acknowledges his heroic virtues and considers him a servant of God, moving him one step closer to potential sainthood.