Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Father Augustine Tolton, The First Black Priest of the United States

I just finished the fascinating book, From Slave to Priest: A Biography of Reverend Augustine Tolton, The First Black Priest of the United States by Sister Caroline Hemesath (Ignatius Press).

"Good Father Gus" was born into a devout Catholic family of slaves in Missouri in 1854. His father died fighting for the Union Army and Augustine was just seven years old when he traveled with his mother and two siblings on the Underground Railroad to freedom in Illinois.

Life was very difficult there, even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Tough working conditions and low pay were the norm at the tobacco factory where Augustine worked beginning at the age of nine.

When Augustine discovered he had a vocation to the priesthood, he had the support of many priests and religious who knew him, but was unable to find any seminaries in the United States willing to accept him. After many years of study, prayer and hard work, he was finally accepted at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome.

After his ordination in 1886, he returned to America where he served as a pastor in his hometown of Quincy, Illinois and later on in the first black parish in the city of Chicago. Throughout his life and his ministry, his efforts, though blessed with a significant number of friends and benefactors, were frustrated by ignorance, racism and poverty. He labored tirelessly on behalf of his people, but died at the young age of 43, with many unfulfilled dreams.

It's a rather sad, though faith-filled and inspiring story, and perhaps serves as an important examination of conscience within the study of American history. A tidbit from a conversation between the young Augustine and one of his teachers illustrates the obstacles he was up against: "Father, you mentioned that a master did not actually own a slave's will and intellect when he acquired a slave. What chances did these slaves have to develop their wills and minds? Look at the thousands of persons who are illiterate, mentally and morally stunted."

This is a fascinating and rather quick read for upper high school or adult. Father Tolton is a man who deserves to be remembered and emulated. Sister Hemesath has done a great service to the world by compiling and preserving this very detailed (though at times confusingly-organized) account of his life. She was able to interview many people who knew Father Tolton (including St. Katharine Drexel) since her interest in his life story dates from 1933.
Other resources on Father Augustine Tolton:

Quincy University Biography
Rootsweb Bio
"Black Priest's Story Unknown to Many"

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