- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

CHICAGO — There are only small signs that Augustine Tolton was here.

A few buildings, including a home for senior citizens, carry his name. But the Roman Catholic church where he preached his sermons to flocks of adoring parishioners on Chicago’s South Side is long gone.

And few know the story of the man — a slave who grew up to become the first acknowledged black Catholic priest in the United States.

“When he was alive, his life would probably not have been considered that newsworthy. He lived at a time when to be a person of color automatically meant that you were not a person of significance,” said Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who served from 2001 to 2004 as the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “So the very fact that he was able to accomplish what he accomplished under severe limitations was to his credit.”

Even Archbishop Gregory, a native Chicagoan, did not know Father Tolton’s story until he was well into adulthood.

“We need to find vehicles to make him better known today,” he said.

To that end, a book about Father Tolton’s life — “From Slave to Priest” — is being published by San Francisco-based Ignatius Press. The biography was written by Sister Caroline Hemesath, who first published the work in 1973. Ignatius Press hopes it will now find a wider audience.

Father Tolton’s story is one of struggle and perseverance.

The second of three children, he was born in 1854 to Catholic parents who were slaves in Missouri, just a few years before the start of the Civil War.

His father, Peter Tolton, was one of many slaves who escaped to join the Union Army and fight for black freedom — and who died battling for that cause, according to Sister Hemesath’s book.

Augustine, his mother, Martha Jane, and his two siblings, escaped across the Mississippi River to Illinois, frantically rowing a boat while ducking Confederate gunfire.

Eventually, they landed in Quincy, Ill., where Mrs. Tolton, Augustine and brother Charley worked in a tobacco factory.

Augustine met priests and nuns throughout his life who helped him, including some who taught him to read. Others, however, were angry that a black boy was being educated with whites and they tried to stop him from realizing his dream of becoming a priest.

After years of rejection by U.S. seminaries, pleas on his behalf from sympathetic Catholics finally allowed Augustine to study in Rome, leading to his ordination in 1886, when he was 31.

Father Tolton had hoped to become a missionary in Africa as an escape from American racism. Instead, he was assigned to a church in Quincy and later Chicago — a bitter disappointment that he nonetheless dutifully accepted. He went on to face more hardship and resentment — and little financial support for the black churches he oversaw.

“If anybody had an excuse to leave the Catholic Church, it was him,” said Harold Burke-Sivers, a deacon in a Portland, Ore., parish, who is also black and who wrote the introduction to the newly issued biography.

But Father Tolton recognized that Catholics who discriminated against him were violating church teaching on the dignity of all people and he dedicated himself to changing that, Mr. Burke-Sivers said. “He saw what the church could be.”

Father Tolton was credited with becoming a unifying force for black Catholics, especially in Chicago. “Good Father Gus,” as his parishioners often called him, was known for his eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his gift for playing the accordion.

Upon his arrival in Chicago in 1889, some of the black parishioners who came to see him “knelt at his feet and murmured words of gladness or wept for sheer joy because they had a pastor, ‘one of their own,’ ” Sister Hemesath wrote in her book. He spent much of his time attempting to raise funds for the now-defunct St. Monica’s Church in Chicago.

“These dear people feel proud that they have a priest to look after them. Even Protestants, when sick, will send for me in preference to their preachers, and they treat me with the greatest respect,” Father Tolton wrote in a letter to one philanthropist. “That makes me feel that there is great work for me here.”

By 1893, however, Sister Hemesath wrote that Father Tolton was beginning to be beset by “spells of illness,” though he shrugged them off, preferring to focus on his work and his parishioners.

That work was cut short when he collapsed and died during a brutal Chicago heat wave in 1897. He was 43.

Mr. Burke-Sivers thinks it is a story that is still relevant — not only for black Catholics.

“Young people can look to Father Augustine’s legacy and be inspired — and be able to say, ‘If he could do it, so could I,’ ” he said.

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