One of the most foundational books ever written on Black Catholicism is The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB. Though it was written nearly three decades ago, the impressive scholarship and detail Davis includes in every chapter is an impressive feat that chronicles the struggles, hardships, and moments of light in the Black Catholic experience in the United States.
In his seminal work, Fr. Davis dedicates a chapter to investigating and uncovering the stories of the first Black men in the nation who aspired to be Catholic priests. He provides an overview of a number of holy men who aspired to the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the 19th century, but the heart of the chapter is dedicated to Augustus Tolton—recognized as the first Black priest in U.S. history.
Much has happened since this book was published, including how the Church recognizes the life of this saintly priest. His cause for sainthood was opened in 2010 by the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. In 2019, following his 2012 recognition as a “Servant of God,” Pope Francis declared that Tolton lived a life of heroic virtue and he has been advanced to the title, “The Venerable Father Augustus Tolton”—one step closer to sainthood.
Catholics across the country—including Black Catholics like myself—are keeping a close eye on his cause for canonization. Many believe his canonization would be a unifying event with the potential to bridge century-old racial divides. There are some who see in Tolton’s canonization a reflection of the Church in the Americas. The Americas have a plethora of saints from different regions and ethnicities: South Americans (including Rose of Lima), Mexicans (such as Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin), white American women (including Elizabeth Ann Seton), and a Native North American (Kateri Tekakwitha). While this body is diverse, many await the day when an African American joins this group of holy men and women.
When I reflect on the life, ministry, and legacy of Father Tolton, the similarities to Jesus Christ are clear. Tolton endured suffering and lived a life of self-sacrifice, and in many ways plays a unique role as a redeemer for Black Catholics.
As I revisit Fr. Davis’s book, I would like to share some details of the story of Tolton, as well as some of my own insights about him and his predecessors.
Father Tolton’s life began in the same way as it did for so many Black children during the mid-19th century: under the oppressive subjugation of slavery. Augustus was born April 1, 1854 to Martha Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton, both slaves and devout Catholics. As the Civil War began, Peter Paul fled the plantation and eventually made it to St. Louis.
As the whereabouts of his father remained unknown, Martha and the children also escaped slavery and fled to the free state of Illinois. Residing in the city of Quincy, one of the first things Martha did was enroll her children in the local Catholic school. During Tolton’s education, a desire to become a priest was implanted in his heart. This desire didn’t come without its challenges. Many seminaries would not admit him because of his race. Thankfully, with the help of a few friendly priests, he received private tutoring in order to become academically prepared for seminary. After a period of private instruction, he entered St. Francis College (now Quincy College). In 1880 Tolton began his studies at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome. This seminary’s primary mission is to train priests as missionaries to spread Catholicism around the globe. Tolton had hoped he would be sent to serve in Africa, but his superiors sent him back to America.
Augustus Tolton was ordained April 24, 1886. When he returned to the United States, Black Catholics expressed jubilant praise. For the first time, they could see a priest that reflected their likeness at the altar of Christ! As time went on, Tolton acquired a strong following in Quincy. Black Catholics loved him, and even Black Protestants and a number of Whites rejoiced in his ministry. Despite this acclaim, he was also met with resistance. Many local European priests disliked that their parishioners would receive sacraments from Tolton. Due to their deep-seated hatred for Blacks, these priests often petitioned for him to be transferred to another area.
After three years in Quincy, where he inspired numerous conversions to Catholicism, made a favorable impression on the townspeople, and suffered persecution from racially hostile priests, Tolton received approval to transfer to Chicago in 1889.
When he arrived in Chicago, Tolton found a small band of Black Catholics who worshiped together but had no parish. Eventually, he was awarded a portion of land and slowly started to build a church. Even before he finished, this became his primary place of ministry to the Black community. Tolton frequently asked Katharine Drexel (the future saint) for assistance to support the construction of his parish. She supported this endeavor handsomely—once with a $30,000 check! Once the building was completed, it became St. Monica’s Catholic Church. The Church merged with St. Elizabeth Church in 1924.
In the midst of his groundbreaking service in Chicago, where he became a beacon of hope for Black Americans across religious divides, parishioners noticed that he was looking exhausted. During a heat wave, on July 9, 1897, Tolton collapsed due to the sweltering temperatures while returning to Chicago from a priest’s retreat. He died that day from heat stroke and uremia.
Tolton lived a short life, dying at only forty-three years old. Having only served as a priest for a little over eleven years, one could argue that he had barely reached the height of his priestly service. But in that short time, he made an immeasurable impact on the Christian community—Black and White, Catholic and Protestant—and won people over by his unwavering resilience and determination amid racism and White antagonism.
In his priesthood, Tolton embraced the life of Christ. His life story embodies the seminal verse from Isaiah 53:3 that points to the Messiah, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Indeed, Tolton was the one discarded by the White hierarchy of his day. With their repudiation of his priesthood, one can only imagine Tolton’s anguish and the toll taken by constant reminders of his social inferiority. The rejections he suffered even directly impacted his vocation—he had to travel to Rome because American seminaries wouldn’t take him. But at the end of the day, despite the persecution and discrimination, he walked confidently, submitting to God.
Since Tolton was the only member of his race who served as a priest in the entire country, he wrestled with periods of despondency. His correspondence with mentors highlighted how he longed for a connection with other Black men in the priesthood. In addition to his hard work to build a church, he was forced to battle white supremacy within the Church from both laity and his fellow priests. Because he was the only visible Black priest in the U.S., one can imagine the unfathomable pressure he endured in his ministry. Though he faced obstacles, he remained a good-hearted model of Christ—dedicated to the needs of his flock and his commitment to the priesthood.
This period of Tolton’s life also reminds me of Jesus at Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46). When faced with the immense pain and psychological weight of knowing what was about to transpire, Jesus submitted himself to the Father’s will.
Furthermore, the life of Tolton reveals a strong display of charity. Though the townspeople mocked and harassed his vocation, Tolton steadily committed himself to living as a Christ-like model of not repaying evil with evil. Christ endured a heinous death and unfair trial, but he never uttered a word of hatred toward his neighbor. Instead, he offered prayers of intercession on their behalf (Lk 23:34).
Though both died at a young age, both Tolton and Jesus Christ offered their lives as a sacrifice. Both men lived in poverty and humility and never sought to bring attention to themselves but to glorify God with their lives.
The long-awaited Messiah in Jewish history culminated in the person of Jesus Christ. However, since his Resurrection, numerous countless false Messiahs have popped up. Jesus demonstrated consistently that he was the anticipated king and descendant of David that the Scriptures foretold would appear and fulfill hundreds of prophecies.
Years before Fr. Tolton began his ministry, three other priests with African ancestry were ordained in the United States: the Healy brothers. Three sons from the Healy family were ordained to the priesthood: James (b. 1830, the first Black priest and bishop in the United States), Patrick (b. 1833, a member of the Society of Jesus), and Alexander (b. 1836, a theologian and canon lawyer). Several of their sisters entered religious life as well. They were the sons of Michael Healy, a wealthy Irish slave owner, and Mary Eliza, a slave on his Georgia plantation. (Though they never married due to anti-miscegenation laws, the two had ten children.)
Even though they were born into slavery, after the Healy brothers entered the priesthood (with one even becoming a bishop), they played little role in Black Catholic advocacy, and produced little real fruit for the cause of Black Catholics. Despite their successful careers in the Church, the powerful relationships they formed within the hierarchy, and their winsome character, the Healy brothers never explicitly advanced the cause and needs of the Black community when the opportunity arose. For instance, James Healy refused to speak to the Colored Catholic Congress when invited in 1889, 1890, and 1892.
For Alexander and James, their reputations and stellar performance overshadowed the knowledge of their Black heritage. Although they had African ancestry, they were light-skinned and therefore able to pass as White. They enjoyed abundant privileges that Blacks like Tolton did not receive. Compare their stories with Tolton’s and you can see startling differences between how they were treated in society.
As a Black Catholic, one would like to feel a sense of pride about the Healy brothers, but ultimately, they presented false hope. They abandoned the Black community at the time when support was most needed. This is why many recognize Augustus Tolton as the first African American priest, because he identified with the suffering and inequalities endured by Blacks at that time, whereas the Healys avoided association with the Black community. With Tolton, we have the authenticity of a man who embraced the Black Catholic experience and knew intimately the trials of being a minority in the Church.
As the true first priest for Black Catholics, Tolton incorporated Black Catholics into the Mysteries of Christ. Without detracting from the two successful groups of Black women religious that preceded his ministry—the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of the Holy Family—Fr. Tolton, in his ministry, lifted up Black Catholics from a space of obscurity to visibility in the wider Church.
Before his ordination, Fr. Tolton thought he would be sent to Africa to serve in the missions. Surprisingly, he was returned to his own racist town in Illinois to serve in the face of much hostility and hate. But through his ministry he was able to demonstrate just how universal and all-encompassing the Church is. His work helped move the U.S. Church towards being a place where partiality doesn’t exist.
He was able to show in his native Illinois how God choses both the “white man” and the “negro” for the same role, and to teach how coexistence in the eternal kingdom first requires coexistence in the natural world.
The life and legacy of Venerable Augustus Tolton has benefited the American Church in an invaluable way. Just as with all the Saints, their lives guide us closer to God, and I think God is teaching us a lesson on the importance of hope through adversity in the example of Fr. Tolton.
The American Church owes Fr. Cyprian Davis, who passed away in 2015, an incalculable debt for this work that he researched, wrote, and published. Although I am not a scholar on the topic, I immersed myself in Davis’s work and benefited greatly from this groundbreaking book on the journey of Black Catholics. I highly recommend this book and I pray that all Catholics will purchase and read The History of Black Catholics in the United States to learn about the heritage of Black Catholics and to be inspired by the remarkable examples of holy men and women like Fr. Tolton.
May Fr. Cyprian Davis rest in peace with our Lord and Savior.