The life and times of the late Father Augustus Tolton would make a great movie or television series, and, as a topic for an exercise of Lenten reflection, you would be hard-pressed to find a stronger subject. Born in 1854, Father Tolton was what we call today African American. In the middle part of the 19th century they had another name for him … slave. His spiritual sojourn took him across an ocean and back, where he became the first African-American Catholic priest in our country’s history.
Since Black History Month and Lent comingle this year, the story of Father Tolton reverberates on a lot of levels. Imagine a man born the same year as Booker T. Washington and three years before the United States Supreme Court decided Scott v. Sandford (also known as the Dred Scott Decision). Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — a slave owner himself — and six fellow justices ruled 7-2 against slave Dred Scott, who had argued that since he lived in a free state for four years he could not be a slave.
Justice Taney disagreed and wrote an interminably long majority opinion pontificating on the legal and “moral” grounds as to why Dred Scott remained enslaved regardless of where his master resided. According to the esteemed jurist’s expert opinion, the U.S. Constitution did not intend to include African slaves when it was written, and if he were allowed to be free it would further undermine the concept of private property toward Scott’s “rightful” owner.
Even in 1854 people on the other side of the argument, and there were legions, condemned the decision. And in just a few short years, this case became just another directional arrow pointing toward the cataclysmic secession of the Southern states where the finer points of the 1854 decision and the issue of slavery itself would eventually be worked out on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. But America’s “original sin” would have lasting implications far beyond the end of the Civil War and, from everything you see and read today, has yet to be fully vented.
But as dysfunctional we may think our world is today, it is hard to fathom a more hostile environment for a newly liberated black man than America in the 1800s. When he was only seven years old, Augustus Tolton’s family was emancipated. His father moved the family to St. Louis and when the Civil War broke out he joined the Union Army, where he unheroically died of dysentery before ever going into battle.
Augustus’ mother moved her family to Quincy, Illinois, where her children were baptized and raised Catholic. It is reported that from an early age people saw signs of a possible vocation in Augustus. Due exclusively to the color of his skin, Augustus’ discernment process for the priesthood was wrought with challenges.
He was refused enrollment into every seminary in America he attempted to enter. He couldn’t even get into a seminary in America that was training priests precisely for the mission of reaching out to the newly emancipated African Americans. This is where the word “Catholic” comes to the rescue and Augustus, under the mentoring of a good Quincy priest, was sent to Rome for his seminary training.
Through the grace of God and the actions of other good priests, he was ordained a priest within the walls of St. John Lateran in Rome and returned to America to take up his clerical duties in his hometown of Quincy. Though he was far above the Mason-Dixon line and people don’t usually equate rabid racism with states like Illinois, Father Tolton’s struggles continued as white parishioners were not overly thrilled at the prospect of a black shepherd, and local black ministers were not overly thrilled with a papist making inroads in their community.
Like a lot of priests, moving on was part of his life and Father Tolton was eventually transferred to Chicago, where unfortunately he passed away at the early age of 43. Even in death he was not absolved from racial animus. He was granted the “privilege” of being interred in the priest section of a white cemetery, but was buried so deep that another priest was eventually buried above him. The inscription for Father Tolton is to be found on the back side of the stone cross that marks the upper berth priest’s grave.
We cradle Catholics take a lot for granted and it is good to remember people like Father Tolton, who bore more than his share of weight from a variety of crosses and bequeathed us an imitation of the Lenten journey his life so powerfully mirrored.
Regardless of what color we happen to be, we cannot recreate in our minds what this world was like for Father Tolton, but, once again, we see an example of God’s timetable, not ours. And his struggles and faithfulness in the context of his time should make us all shiver just a little and seek forgiveness for the times we thought how difficult our lives might be.
Father Tolton was so much more than just the first African-American Catholic priest. His life was a living testament to the power of grace, the influence of a faithful mother and proof of how God, through the actions of others (like the good priest who mentored him) can change the world.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.