Augustine Tolton was born in 1854 to a Catholic family of African-American slaves. He escaped as a child with his mother and brothers from Ralls County, Missouri to Quincy, Illinois by crossing the Mississippi River. His father died fighting for the Union Army against the Confederacy during the Civil War’s struggle to abolish slavery. Augustine and his family also used the famous slave escape route from the South into the North. This route, called the Underground Railroad, was a system used by thousands of slaves who, aided by both white and black people, fled from the Southern states into territories controlled by the Union where there was no slavery. Help was given discreetly because although it was true that there was no slavery in the Northern states, Southerners could still persecute them because at this time African-Americans were not considered human being but personal property, an issue that was approved by the Supreme Court of that time, like to today legalize that unborn children are not human being. To end slavery and restore the status of the African-American population as persons, a bloody Civil War was fought between the Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, at the cost of 600 thousand lives.
Those who helped the escape of slaves could be accused of theft and in southern states executed at the spot. Captured fugitive slaves could wait for death at the site, be tortured or mutilate a foot. All this changed in the years when the Toltons settled in Quincy, years in which the Civil War finish and ended the slavery of African Americans, but not with the prejudices that followed Augustin Tolton wherever he went. During Tolton’s childhood and youth, he was unable to develop a formal education, although he was helped by priests and nuns who educated him. When Tolton wanted to formally enroll, white members threatened to leave the Catholic Church if he studied with their children. Tolton also work in a tobacco plantation since the age of nine and it was here that he managed to forge an education through the help of charitable teachers, in especial an Irish priest Peter McGirr.
McGirr noticed Tolton’s qualities of unconditional love for God and the people around him and McGirr encouraged Tolton to enter the seminary. However, like the conditions of his school days, everyone denied him help, including the state bishops who argued that they were not prepared for a black priest. McGirr and his friends saw that it was impossible for Tolton to enter a seminary in the United States and after much effort McGirr sent Tolton study for priest to Rome, Italy. When he finishes his studies after 6 years, everyone expect Tolton destination will be a missionary priest in Africa, but, to Tolton’s surprise, the overseeing Italian bishop sent him back to the United States where Tolton became the first black catholic priest to officiate mass in the United States.
Tolton’s ministry in Quincy, Illinois progressed well for three years during which time he managed with great effort the parish of Saint Joseph until the arrival of a German priest who drove the white population away from Tolton’s church and sabotaged Tolton’s attempts to keep his parish afloat. Tolton eventually settled in Chicago. In the Windy City, Tolton received limited monetary and personal support to build Saint Monica Church, where he tried to bring together Chicago’s black population. Tolton went out of his way to help his flock, especially the most impoverished. Tolton visited unhealthy dwellings where alcohol and rodents were prevalent, he struggled for them, he became sick for them, and he suffered for them to such an extent that he seemed much older than his age. One summer day, the temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit and while he was seeking help for his community Tolton collapsed and dies at the age of forty-three due to a stroke and uremia brought on by overwork. Tolton left behind a legacy of holiness and love to God, the Church, and the people.
The legacy of Father Tolton is that in difficult times noble men are forged to fight against adversity, even at the cost of their own lives. Tolton fought against slavery, racial prejudice, including within the Catholic Church of his own country, and against the many factors of poverty that afflicted his race. To human eyes, Tolton’s mission was not successful. In the eyes of God, Tolton triumphed with his faith. In today’s world, the African-American Catholic Church in the United States, despite having undergone a long history of prejudice and other adversities, prevails due to the pioneering efforts of Tolton. Recently, an Afro-American Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago has initiated the case for the sanctification of Father Augustin Tolton.
Jim Coleman, in his presentation summarizes this beautiful story of love and dedication of a great human being that is a source of inspiration for many who fight for the elemental rights of human beings: life, freedom, education, and love. Saint Luke Productions comes to Connecticut twice a year thanks to the efforts of Father Edmund Nadolny, www.fathernadolny.com.
* Traduction helped by Dante R. Perleche