Father Augustus Tolton is the first recognized African-American Roman Catholic priest in the United States. His mother and father were direct descendants of Africa who were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Tolton’s ordination was taken simultaneously as an anomaly and a news sensation in 19th century America. The ordination of a negro was generally thought to be unimaginable. Others took it as an extraordinary achievement. A priest of black skin vested in the priestly vestments was a novel sight for American eyes. It was an exhilarating experience for black Catholics to receive Holy Communion from a priest of their race. Tolton was viewed as an eloquent and religious man, an innocent soul, given admiration and respect on the one hand and, on the other hand, contempt, and scorn arising from the climate of racial separation ordered for that time.
Below is a timeline of Father Tolton’s life.
1849 Martha Jane Chisley, (Father Tolton’s mother), moves to Missouri from Kentucky as a young slave. This same year, Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery, returns to the South, and becomes one of the main conductors on the Underground Railroad.
1854 Augustus is born to Martha Jane and Peter Paul Tolton in Missouri on April 1. Three years later, in 1857. in the Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court decides African-Americans are not U.S. citizens and Congress has no power to restrict slavery in any federal territory.
1859 Martha Jane and Peter Paul are given permission to marry by their respective masters at St. Peter log-cabin Church, Brush Creek, Missouri. In this same timeframe, the last (schooner) ship to bring slaves to the United States, the Clotilda, arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama. The Civil War begins with firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 14, 1861.
1862 Martha Jane escapes with her children to Quincy, Illinois. This same year, Mary Jane Patterson graduates from Oberlin College in Ohio and becomes the first black woman to graduate from an American college.
1863 At the age of 9, Augustus Tolton begins working in a Quincy tobacco factory and his brother Charles dies at age 10. This same year, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation legally frees all slaves in the Confederacy.
1865 Augustus Tolton enters St. Boniface School and leaves a month later because parish and staff are being threatened and harassed about his presence there. The Civil War ends April 26 the same year.
1868 Augustus Tolton enrolls in St. Peter School, Quincy, Illinois. This same year, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified July 21, granting citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States.
1870 Augustus Tolton is confirmed in St. Peter Church at age 16 and likely receives his First Communion. Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi becomes the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate the same year. Just one year later, the Chicago Fire burns from Sunday, October 8, 1871, to Tuesday, October 10, 1871.
1872 Augustus Tolton graduates from St. Peter School at age 18. By 1873, his tutoring begins in preparation for the seminary.
1878 Augustus Tolton enrolls in St. Francis College, now Quincy University. He receives special instruction because he is more advanced than other students.
1880 Augustus Tolton departs for Rome on February 15 to enter the seminary at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide. He expects to become a missionary priest in Africa. The U.S. population was 50 million with 6.5 million (13%) black people, according to the 1880 Census. The lower level of St. Mary’s Church in Chicago becomes the city's first negro parish two years later. Mass is celebrated there until Tolton becomes pastor in 1889.
1886 Augustus Tolton is ordained April 24 at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. He is informed he will return as a missionary to Quincy, Illinois in his home country, the United States. Fr. Tolton conducts his first Mass on April 25 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He also celebrates his first Mass with the Franciscan Sisters in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 7. He celebrates his first Mass in Quincy at St. Boniface Church on July 18, becoming pastor of St. Joseph Church. On May 4 of the same year, the Haymarket Riot occurs on Des Plaines Street north of Randolph Street in Chicago.
1889 Father Tolton starts his ministry in Chicago on December 19. This same year, Jane Addams establishes Hull House in Chicago.
1891 St. Monica Church opens in a storefront in the 2200 block of South Indiana Avenue. This same year, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams establishes Provident Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago, the oldest black-owned hospital in the U.S.
1894 The dedication of St. Monica Church occurs January 14. The U.S. Supreme Court votes 7-1 in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal”, only two years later.
1897 Father Tolton dies July 9 at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. He was 43. The funeral is July 12 at St. Monica Church, 36th and Dearborn Street. A funeral also occurs July 13 at St. Peter Church in Quincy.
How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”