Frances Cardinal George of Chicago announced yesterday that he is appointing a commission to gather information about Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first known African-American Catholic priest.
Cardinal George said Tolton’s prayer and assistance can help us be “a more united church.”
Tolton escaped from slavery at the beginning of the Civil War, and was baptized before crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. He and his siblings became Catholic and their parish priest encouraged him to become a priest. No American seminary would admit a black man, however — he had to travel to Rome to study and be ordained.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Tolton wanted to be a missionary to Africa, but he was sent back to Quincy, where, despite opposition from the town’s white priests, he presided over an integrated congregation. He was eventually asked to start a mission church in Chicago for African-Americans. It began in a basement:
That mission became St. Monica’s on the South Side, the city’s first black parish, which was dedicated in 1894. Tolton raised money for the parish building and oversaw its design before dying of a heat stroke in 1897 at age 43. The parish consolidated with St. Elizabeth in 1924.
He died young. It’s nice that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves (though he wasn’t looking for that, obviously).
Tolton’s grand-niece Sabrina Penn, author of “A Place for My Children,” one of only two biographies about Tolton, said she was thrilled by the recognition.
“Hallelujah,” she said. “To be born into slavery and become a priest and have the honor to be called a saint is just awesome.”