About Venerable Augustine Tolton

Understanding the contemporary situation in which a person lived can often help us better understand and appreciate a person’s life. Augustine Tolton was born in the year the Republican Party formed out of the Know Nothing Party over the issue of slavery (the Republicans opposed it). That same year, the Victoria Tower (which houses Big Ben) was completed in London. A little further away in Rome, Blessed Pope Pius IX issued the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, in which he defined as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Three years after Fr. Tolton was born, the Supreme Court of the United States of America decided the Dred Scott case, in which it was said blacks were not American citizens and that the United States Congress could not restrict slavery. The American Civil War began when Father Tolton was seven years old. When he was thirty-two, Saint Charles Llwanga and his companions were martyred in Uganda.

Birth on the Plantation

brushcreekfrontThe Venerable priest was born in Brush Creek, Missouri on April 1, 1854. The son of faithful Catholics, Peter Paul and Martha Jane, he received the grace of Baptism on May 29, 1854 in St. Peter’s church at Brush Creek.

In 1862, Martha heard talk of slave traders in the area looking for children. Having herself been separated from her parents when she was eleven, she feared for her children and fled the farm with her three young children. They made their way to Hannibal, Missouri where Union soldiers protected them from Confederate soldiers and set them in a small and rickety boat in the waters of the mighty Mississippi River. After making shore in Illinois, they made their way to Quincy, one of the major stops on the Underground Railroad.

Growing up in Quincy

In 1865, young Gus enrolled in St. Boniface school with the permission of the pastor, Father Schaeffermeyer. His enrollment led many to threaten to remove their children from the school, to leave the parish, and even to call for the removal of their pastor. Just one month after he enrolled, young Gus withdrew from the school.

Hearing of his troubles, Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Lawrence Parish (it would later become St. Peter Parish), insisted Augustine study in a Catholic school and promised he would personally see that Gus would have no trouble there. Prior to Gus’ enrollment in the school, Father McGirr preached for three weeks in a row on Jesus’ words, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Years later, Father Tolton recalled, “As long as I was in that school, I was safe.  Everyone was kind to me.”1

Gus served Mass each morning before going to work at the Harris Tobacco Factory or before going to classes at St. Peter’s and became close with two priests who were both impressed with his devotion and thought he had a priestly vocation. They wrote letter after letter to seminaries and religious Orders throughout the country seeking one that would accept him but time and time again, they were told, “We are not ready for a Negro student.”

When he was twenty-four, he opened St. Joseph School of Black Children in Quincy, the first of its kind in the city. Even here he was met with opposition, when black Protestants publicly refused to send their children to the school because he was Catholic.

Studies in Rome

Headline1One day, a long-awaited letter arrived for Gus: he had been accepted to the seminary for the Propaganda Fidei in Rome. Those ordained from this seminary would be sent to mission territories throughout the world, with no choice as to where they would be sent. Nevertheless, Gus was filled with great joy that day. He arrived in the Eternal City at the age of twenty-six and was nicknamed, “Gus from the U.S.” While in Rome, Gus did not experience any of the racism he experienced in the United States. He said of his time in the Eternal City, “All were my friends, they all loved me, though I cannot say why.”2

After completing his formation and academic studies, he was ordained to the Order of Deacons on November 8, 1885 and said of his ordination, “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains – in Africa.”3

He had spent his spare time studying the geography and cultures of Africa, certain he would be sent there, but the day before he was ordained a priest, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni told Deacon Tolton it was decided the night before that he would be sent Africa, but the Cardinal over-ruled the decision. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” he said. “We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now!”4 It must have been shocking news, but he had already promised his obedience. One month after he was ordained a priest in the Lateran Cathedral of April 24, 1886, he left the Eternal City for the Gem City of Quincy.

Return to Quincy

Father Gus arrived in Quincy on July 17, 1886 onboard a train dubbed “The Q” and was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, which had been established as a parish for Blacks. The train pulled into the station at Front and Vermont streets, where a brass band greeted him by playing his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

As he disembarked, a large crowd cheered and waved in greeting to the first black priest in these United States of America. Father Gus climbed into a carriage, drawn by four white horses and decorated with flowers, and a procession with the band and the people moved from the train station to St. Peter’s church, then at Eighth and Maine Streets. He received an enthusiastic welcome in the Gem City, was admired by all, and the Quincy Daily Journal described his first Mass in Quincy in St. Boniface on July 18, 1886 as “the grandest service ever held in Quincy.”5

Remembering that happy day, Father Gus recalled, “everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all the others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.”6

headline2The parish entrusted to him as the home for black Catholics - St. Joseph’s at the corner of Seventh and Jersey streets - was small, even by the standards of the day. His ministry met with some success, but affairs soured when Father Michael Weiss was appointed Pastor of St. Boniface Parish, just one block from St. Joseph’s, for it was Father Weiss who took great offense at Father Tolton and harbored prejudiced thoughts against him.

St. Boniface Parish was in debt and had given much to St. Joseph’s Parish. Many of Father Weiss’ parishioners attended Father Tolton’s Masses and contributed to his parish. Father Weiss forbade Father Tolton from ministering to whites and repeatedly made it clear that contributions from whites belonged to white parishes. This was the first time Father Tolton experienced prejudice from a priest, and it devastated him.

When finally this hardship became too great for him to accept, he wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith:

There is a certain German priest here who is jealous and contemptuous.  He abuses me in many ways and he has told the bishop to send me out of this place. I will gladly leave here just to be away from this priest. I appealed to Bishop [James] Ryan and he also advises me to go elsewhere.7

Soon afterward, Archbishop Feehan told him he would be welcome in Chicago, so he wrote again to the Congregation: “I beg you to give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest.” The reply arrived two months later: “If the two bishops concur in giving their approval, go at once!”8 Just twelve days later, he left for Chicago with nineteen of his converts to take up the pastorate of St. Monica’s chapel, where he was entrusted with the pastoral care of all of Chicago’s black Catholics.

Before he left Quincy, the white Catholics of the city gave Father Gus $75.00 “as a token of the esteem in which he was held by many white friends in this city.” For his part, Father Gus wrote to a friend a letter published in The Quincy Daily Journal:

My gratitude to these people of the Gem City is threefold. Some of the white friends and benefactors of St. Joseph’s church did not forget their colored priest Father Tolton. They did not let him go away empty handed from the Gem City, but as a token of respect they have made him a suitable donation, asking him to remember them in his prayers, and promised to do three times mores if he would only remain with them. Catholics will love and respect a priest regardless of nationality; at least that is the spirit of those people in the Gem City who knew me for twenty-nine years or more. Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children.”9

After he left Quincy, St. Joseph Parish closed for good.

Ministry in Chicago

In early 1893, St. Monica’s comprised 127 families and Father Gus was preparing to begin construction on an actual church, rather than the storefront St. Monica’s was using at the time.10 Because his congregation was small and poor, Father Gus accepted speaking engagements across the country as a way to raise necessary funds for his ministry in the parish and to begin construction on a church.

From the beginning, his “ardent charity and self-denying zeal” were evident to all.11 Within two years, he began construction on a new church – that was never completed – and ministered to some six hundred black Catholics.

Death and Burial

Tolton 4Having spent himself in the service of the Church, he died of heat stroke in 105-degree weather on July 9, 1897; he was forty-three years of age. Eight other people died of heatstroke that same weekend. St. Monica’s became a mission and it took another two years for a full-time pastor to be assigned to it. St. Monica’s closed for good in 1924.

Because it was his desire to buried in Quincy, his body was brought to Quincy by train and arrived on July 13, 1897; the requiem Mass was celebrated that same day and “St. Peter’s church was crowded with a great throng of friends who desired to pay at last tribute of respect to the dead priest, and among the audience were many colored people.”12 “They brought the remains back to Quincy as he had requested. It was as it should be. His heart had never left it.”13


His is a life of deep faith and of perseverance. Despite the opposition he faced, he never lost his love of the Church or of the priesthood, and never did he condemn Father Weiss or speak ill of him. Throughout his life, Father Tolton remained “content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (II Corinthians 12:10).

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel. As Father Roy Bauer has said, “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful!”14 The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model for us all and a continual reminder that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).

[1] In Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus: The Life and Times of Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest in the U.S.A., Part Eight.

[2] In St. Joseph’s Advocate [January 1888] Sixth Year, No. 1, 322-323, 326

[3] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Fifteen.

[4] Ibid., Part Seventeen.

[5] “Solemn High Mass,” Quincy Daily Journal, July 19, 1886.

[6] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Cardinal Checchi, September 1886.

[7] In They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-four.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustus Tolton, In “Father Tolton,” The Quincy Daily Journal, November 13, 1889.

[10] Cf. “America’s First Negro Priest,” The Quincy Daily Journal, January 14, 1893.

[11] Mary Elmore in They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-seven.

[12] “Priest Laid to Rest,” Quincy Daily Whig, July 14, 1897.

[13] Landy Genosky, O.F.M.

[14] Ibid., Part Twenty-nine.