Servant of God Augustus Tolton (April 1, 1854 - July 9, 1897), baptized Augustine Tolton, was the first Roman Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be black when he was ordained in 1886. (James Augustine Healy, ordained in 1854, and Patrick Francis Healy, ordained in 1864 were of mixed-race.) A former slave who was baptized and reared Catholic, Tolton studied formally in Rome. He was ordained in Rome on Easter Sunday at the Cathedral-Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Assigned to the diocese of Alton (now Diocese of Springfield), Tolton first ministered to his home parish in Quincy, Illinois. Later assigned to Chicago, Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica's Catholic Church as a black "national parish church", completed in 1893 at 36th and Dearborn Streets on Chicago's South Side.
Augustus Tolton was born in Missouri to Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane Chisley, who were enslaved. His mother, who was reared Catholic, named him after an uncle named Augustus and was baptized Augustine in St. Peter's Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri, a community about 12 miles from Hannibal. His master was Stephen Elliott. Savilla Elliot, his master's wife, stood as Tolton's godmother.
How the members of the Tolton family gained their freedom remains a subject of debate. According to accounts Father Tolton told friends and parishioners, his father escaped first and joined the Union Army. Tolton's mother then ran away with her children Charley, Augustine, and Anne. With the assistance of sympathetic Union soldiers and police, she crossed the Mississippi River and into the Free State of Illinois. According to descendants of the Elliott family, though, Stephen Elliott freed all his slaves at the outbreak of the American Civil War and allowed them to move North. Augustine's father died of dysentery before the war ended.
After arriving in Quincy, Illinois, Martha, Augustus, and Charley began working at the Herris Tobacco Company where they made cigars. After Charley's death at a young age, Augustine met Father Peter McGirr, an Irish-American priest, who gave him the opportunity to attend St. Peter's parochial school during the winter months when the factory was closed. The priest's decision was controversial in the parish. Although abolitionists were active in the town, many of Father McGirr's parishioners objected to a black student at their children's school. McGirr held fast and allowed Tolton to study there. Later Tolton continued studies directly with some priests.
Despite McGirr's support, Tolton was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. Impressed by his personal qualities, McGirr continued to help him and enabled Tolton's study in Rome. Tolton graduated from St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) and attended the Pontifical Urbaniana University, where he became fluent in Italian as well as studying Latin and Greek.
Tolton was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1886 at age 31. Expecting to serve in an African mission, he had been studying its regional cultures and languages. Instead, he was directed to return to the United States to serve the black community.
Tolton celebrated his first public Mass at St. Boniface church in Quincy. He attempted to organize a black parish there, but over the years met with resistance from both white Catholics (many of whom were ethnic German) and Protestant blacks, who did not want him trying to attract people to another denomination. He organized St. Joseph Catholic Church and school in Quincy, but ran into opposition from the new dean of the parish, who wanted him to turn away white worshipers from his services.
After reassignment to Chicago, Tolton led a mission society, St. Augustine's, that met in the basement of St. Mary's Church. He led the development and administration of the Negro "national parish" of St. Monica's Catholic Church, built at 36th and Dearborn Streets on the South Side, Chicago. The church grew to have 600 parishioners. Tolton's success at ministering to black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Catholic hierarchy. "Good Father Gus", as he was called by many, was known for his "eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent for playing the accordion." 
Hemesath writes that Tolton began to be plagued by "spells of illness" in 1893. At the age of 43, he collapsed and died as a result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1897. Tolton was buried in Quincy in the priests' lot in St. Peter's Cemetery, which had been his expressed wish.
After Tolton's death, St. Monica's was made a mission of St. Elizabeth's Church. In 1924 it was closed as a national parish, as black Catholics chose to attend parish churches in their own neighborhoods.
Legacy and honors
- Tolton is the subject of the 1973 biography From Slave to Priest by Sister Caroline Hemesath. The book was reissued by Ignatius Press in 2006.
- In 1990,Sister Jamie T. Phelps, O.P, an Adrian Dominican Sister and faculty member of the Theology Department of Catholic Theological Union (CTU),initiated the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program in consultation with Fr. Don Senior, President of CTU; the theology faculty; and representatives of the Archdiocese of Chicago, to prepare, educate, and form Black Catholic laity for ministerial leadership in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Cause for Canonization
On the 2nd March 2010 Cardinal George of Chicago announced that he was beginning an official investigation into Tolton's life and virtues with a view to opening the Cause for his canonization. This Cause for Sainthood is also being advanced by the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, where Tolton first served as priest, as well as the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, where his family was enslaved.
On February 24, 2011 - The Roman Catholic Church officially begins the formal introduction of the cause for sainthood of Fr. Augustus Tolton which must take place in a public session. He is now designated Servant of God - Fr. Augustus Tolton. Also at this time there is the establishment of the Historical and Theological Commissions who will investigate the life of Fr. Tolton and the Tolton Guild which is responsible for the promotion of his cause through spiritual and financial endeavors. Cardinal George assigned Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, to be the Diocesan Postulator for the Cause Fr. Tolton's canonization.
- Martha Irvine, "Life story of first recognized black U.S. priest unknown to most", The Post-Crescent, January 7, 2007
- Martin, Catherine (November 1, 2011). "Tolton moves classes to new building". Columbia Daily Tribune. Retrieved 12/10/2011.
- "Chicago archdiocese opens canonization cause for first African-American priest". Catholic News Agency. March 3, 2010. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 03/04/2010.
- Father Roy Bauer, "They Called Him Father Gus", Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in Illinois
- Father Augustus Tolton Cause for Canonization - Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
- Father Augustus Tolton Cause for Canonization - Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Illinois
- "Father Augustine Tolton - First Black Priest"
- From slave to priest: a biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) : first Black American priest of the United States, by Carol Hemesath. ISBN 978-1-58617-097-4