First African American priest being considered for sainthood

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.”


Zoe Romanowsky


Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Zo

  • I am not Spartacus

    In the entrance hall of The Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception in Portland, Maine, in a glass case, are some of the personal belongings of this wonderful man; His beautifully-decorated Sacramentary, his Chalice etc.

    I rather like the fact his Dad was Irish smilies/smiley.gif

  • georgie-ann


  • Jonathan Sullivan

    We in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois are thrilled that this native son is on the way to sainthood! Fr. Tolton is buried in Quincy (as per his express wish; one of the priests there donated his burial plot when Tolton died).

    And it’s putting it nicely that he was “asked” to start a mission church; in truth, some of the white pastors in Quincy were jealous of his success and made life difficult for him, which is why he eventually transferred to Chicago.

    BTW, the other biography is From Slave to Priest by Sr. Caroline Hemsath. It is excellent.

  • Aaron

    Yes, apparently Fr. Tolton was popular enough here in Quincy that some white pastors felt it necessary to tell their white parishioners that they shouldn’t go to the “black parish” — and especially shouldn’t give money to it.

    And today, in a town with about 1800-2000 black people, I bet not more than a dozen are Catholic. Wonder if there’s a connection.