Augustine Tolton - Priest of Heroic Patience
How long would you be willing to wait to see your vocation begin? What if you knew God wanted you to be a priest or religious, but no one was willing to accept you as a candidate? St. Joseph of Cupertino was refused by an order when he was 17 and was later accepted by the Capuchins, but subsequently dismissed. He did not become a priest until he was 25. St. Therese of Lisieux was not allowed to enter the Carmelite monastery because of her youth. Even an impassioned appeal to Pope Leo XIII during a general audience only left her with the orders to “do what the superiors decide.” These saints had to delay their vocations and the reasons seemed justified at the time. St. Joseph could barely read or write and his ecstasies kept him from work. At age nine (through fifteen), St. Therese was simply too young to join a cloistered convent. But what reasons could there be to deny seminary training for an enthusiastic, educated man with financial support, glowing recommendations and true missionary zeal?
Augustine Tolton has the distinction of being the first American black priest to be ordained in this country. He had the unfortunate circumstance of being called to the priesthood at a time in American history when black people were free but still treated harshly because of their race. He was born the property of a Catholic family in 1854. Although the slaves on his plantation were Baptized and instructed in the Faith, the conditions were still inhumane and his family dreamed of seeking freedom in the North. They faced the reality that slaves could be put to death for old age and illness, and that infants who were sickly or disabled could be killed. When the Civil War started, Augustine's father escaped from his plantation to fight for freedom for his family and his people. A year later the rest of the Tolton family would escape and cross the Mississippi with the help of Union men while Confederate soldiers hunted them down. They eventually found freedom amongst a community of runaway slaves in Quincy, Illinois.
Being black and Catholic was a difficult combination in the 1860s. The now fatherless Tolton family attended the local Catholic church in Quincy. St. Boniface parish attracted a number of black families because of the kind German pastor who said the Mass in his native tongue but summarized the Gospel and homily in English. Aside from being segregated into one corner of the church, the black families were treated fairly by the white parishioners. But this all changed when Fr. Scaeffermeyer noticed that Augustine desired an education and allowed the young boy to attend the (all white) parish school. It marked the beginning of racial conflict within the Catholic church that would plague Augustine Tolton for his entire life and nearly prevent him from realizing his dream of becoming a priest.
The problem for Augustine was not that he lacked local support. Vandalism, threatening letters, and concern for Augustine's safety caused his mother to take him out of school but the Toltons were able to find a new parish and a new supportive pastor. Fr. McGirr was never deterred by the complaints of his white parishioners and made sure that Augustine could attend the parish school in safety. In 1870 when the boy confided in Fr. McGirr that he desired Holy Orders, the priest privately tutored the boy so he would be prepared for seminary. It soon became apparent though that there was not a single seminary in America that would accept a black candidate.
Rejected by the Seminaries
The rejection letters were kind but discouraging, “We would like to help, but we're just not ready for a Negro seminarian.” Augustine's thoughts turned to missionary work outside of America where they already had black priests but no help came from his petitions or the petitions by Fr. McGirr on his behalf.
For ten years, Augustine Tolton tutored privately with Fr. McGirr and other kind priests. During this time he served Mass and maintained the grounds of his parish. He lead catechism classes for children and fought to win over black people who were falling away to Pentecostal churches. Augustine frequented the bars at night where he could encourage the drunk and morally depraved people to seek a better life. He kept up a brave facade though he ached inside. Ten years of rejection from people who should have been above the problem of race had left him feeling like he would never be able to answer God's call.
A Change in Circumstances
In 1880 the situation for Augustine finally changed. He was accepted into the Propaganda College in Rome where he would be trained as a seminarian to be a missionary. America should be proud of its first black priest. This man was well educated and knew Greek and Latin. He could speak English, German and Italian and he was even a musician with a beautiful voice. In this Roman seminary at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, Augustine experienced racial harmony for the first time in his life. The church here was not run by fearful, petty men. This was the true Church and it cared for all its flock. The Propaganda College was home to seminarians from Europe, Africa, Asia, and America.
Six years later in 1886 Augustine Tolton was ordained. He said his first Mass in a side chapel at St. Peter's Basilica on Easter Sunday. To his surprise, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith decided that he should be sent back to America to work as a priest. It had been Augustine's hope to minister in Africa among his own people but the Congregation believed America needed a black priest to work among the black people. Later that year he found himself back in Quicy as the pastor of St. Joseph's church.
It is unfortunate that things had changed so little since Fr. Augustine had been gone. The racial harmony he had grown accustomed to in Rome would not follow him to Illinois. He was now a hero in his country but a threat in his hometown. When he first arrived in Quincy the whole town turned out to meet him and celebrate his success. He received invitations from all over the country to give lectures about his experiences and inspire other men who might be facing similar struggles. The first time he celebrated Mass at his new parish there was no place to sit because it was too crowded. The faithful and the curious were mesmerized by this simple man with unwavering patience and steadfastness. But this joyful time was short lived.
Fr. Tolton's tolerance of all races was an aggravation to certain priests in the diocese. They resented the fact that they were losing some of their white parishioners (and the tithe that left with them) to St. Joseph's church. They told Fr. Augustine that he needed to close his doors to white people and only allow black people in his parish. This attitude was only shared by a small minority of priests but it left him feeling miserable and ineffective. Tensions reached a boiling point in 1889 and the sad solution was not to reprimand these priests but instead to send Fr. Augustine to Chicago where he could take over a black parish in the slums. This decision instantly improved his mood and he was forever grateful to his bishop for allowing him to leave Quincy.
In Chicago Fr. Tolton served his parishioners tirelessly. He roamed the rat-infected ghettos helping the poor and sick and calling people to church. He lead adult education classes and Sunday school for the children. His constant work brought many to the Faith and those who knew him admired his charism. But nagging financial frustrations and bad living conditions started to take a toll on his health. He became ill and would sometimes have to sit during his homily or omit it completely. His strong singing voice was now barely audible to those sitting in the back pews. In 1897 Fr. Tolton died unexpectedly while on a priests' retreat in Bourbonnais, IL. The temperature was 105 degrees and he suffered from heat stroke while walking to the rectory where he was staying. He was buried in Quincy, IL and the local paper said it was one of the largest funerals the city had ever had. “The cortege was four blocks long.”
Fr. Augustine Tolton was only 43 when he died. For nearly a quarter of his life he prayed God would show him the path to his calling. If he just looked at the signs he would have given up because there seemed to be no way he could achieve his dream. He was called by God but not chosen by the world. But Augustine's fortitude and patience allowed God to work in His own time and bring a plan to fruition that was much greater than Augustine could have conceived. If you think you've been waiting too long to be “chosen”, say a prayer to Augustin Tolton. He's listening.