For Black Catholic History Month, the Office of Black Catholic Ministry is pleased to present the documentary “A Place at the Table: African-Americans on the Path to Sainthood” for free, in collaboration with FORMED and the Augustine Institute. Ven. Augustus Tolton is featured in the documentary. To watch, visit formed.org/signup, search for your parish and sign up under that parish.
Father Augustus Tolton was the first freed black slave from the United States to become a Catholic priest. Born in Missouri on April 1, 1854, Augustus was born into slavery. There are indications that their owners freed his family at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Although Augustus and his siblings attended Catholic schools, they were subjected to situations of cruelty and racism because they were black. At the age of 16, through teachings on the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass, Augustus heard his call to priesthood.
Due to the fact that U.S. seminaries wouldn’t receive African-Americans, it was not until 1880 that Augustus was accepted into a seminary in Rome. He believed that once ordained he would serve as a missionary and be sent to Africa, however, Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni insisted that the United States had to see the first black priest. He then obediently returned to work with the black community in the U.S., the place where he was most persecuted. He was assigned to serve as a missionary in Quincy, Illinois.
Father Augustus soon became well-known for his beautiful homilies, his voice and his talent when playing the accordion. His effectiveness as a preacher and spiritual leadership began to attract large numbers of white people who attended his Masses to hear his sermons at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chicago, something that his fellow white priests didn’t like. Despite all the challenges he had to face during his apostolate, Father Augustus never gave up and accepted the cross he had to carry for being the only black priest in the country.
Father Augustus never spoke in public about the racism he suffered from his fellow Catholics. Instead, he taught that Catholicism has always welcomed the different races, since one of the wise men, who Father Augustus called “a negro king,” was one of the first ones to greet the newborn Savior. He also preached that the Catholic Church was the only true liberator of blacks in America. He died on July 9, 1897, at the age of 43, of a stroke during a heat wave in Chicago.
He was named Venerable by Pope Francis on June 12, 2019.