City’s First African-American Priest May Become Saint

Updated 02/24/11 – 5:25 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago’s first African-American priest could be on his way to becoming a saint.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports

The Rev. Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in Brush Creek, Mo., in 1854. His given name was John Augustine Tolton.

As CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez reports, Chicago’s highest ranking black Catholic, Bishop Rev. Joseph Perry, is leading the effort to canonize Tolton.

“We see him as the first link of a long chain,” Perry said.

Tolton, Chicago’s first black priest, helped found the city’s first black Catholic church — St. Monica Church — on the South Side. That church has since merged with St. Elizabeth.

Perry said Tolton was a remarkable young man who survived a dark chapter in our nation’s history, having been born a slave.

“’Don’t look in my eyes boy’ was a phrase that was frequently articulated, which translated to a diminishment of the individual, making them a non-person,” Perry said. “He grew in that kind of a context.”

After Tolton’s father, an escaped slave, joined the Union Army during the Civil War, Tolton’s mother took him and his two siblings to the Mississippi River, and crossed over to freedom on the Illinois side, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church tells us.

Soon afterward, the Rev. Peter McGirr of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downstate Quincy noticed the young Tolton standing outside his church. Father McGirr took Tolton in and baptized him as a Roman Catholic as he entered St. Peter’s Catholic School.

Tolton went on to graduate from Quincy College, and Father McGirr arranged for him to complete his ecclesiastical studies in Rome. Tolton was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome in 1886, according to St. Elizabeth Church.

A few years later, Tolton came to Chicago, where he held basement services for a congregation of about 30 African-American Roman Catholics who were part of a club called the St. Augustine Society. Tolton became an instant sensation.

In 1891, the St. Augustine Society was given permission to build St. Monica Church at 36th and Dearborn Streets. Tolton helped found the church, which opened in 1893, and the congregation grew quickly, according to St. Elizabeth.

Tolton remained in service at St. Monica, until he was overcome by the 105-degree heat while returning from a priests’ retreat at St. Viator’s College in Bourbonnais. He collapsed on Calumet Avenue as he was walking from a train station back to his rectory, and died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy, the church said.

Some said they feel his consideration for sainthood is just as sensational as Tolton was.

“In many ways this will re-energize the black Catholic community in Chicago and also the broader church,” said Dr. C. Vanessa White, professor of spirituality for the Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union.

White said Tolton represents holiness, perseverance and reconciliation – all messages that still translate today.

Mary Norfleet Johnson, director of the Office for Black Catholics said, “For me as a black Catholic, Father Tolton is African American, American-born. He was a slave. All the struggles that he went through, and he remained a Catholic. … It is very emotional.”

At a midday prayer service at the Quigley Center in Chicago, a decree was read in Tolton’s honor and papers were signed in advocacy of sainthood for Father Tolton.

There are many more steps until Tolton can be canonized, but everyone involved in the effort said they were more than ready to take up the cause.

  • Kyle

    1897? Are you kidding?

  • Al

    It used to be required that you create a miracle to become a saint. I guess now all you have to be is a member of the “Oppressed persons” and you get it, like Obama got the Nobel prize for getting elected.

    • dee broom

      To be oppressed by a people that is just as equal in nature as you, and still follow your religion, and to do it to that level is a miracle, what are you saying. If you grew up the way these slaves did, and you end up making something out of your life, you would want at least an acknowledgement of your perserverance, people always say not this slavery talk again, well that the problem, we never dealt with it like we should, if it didnt happen to you and yours then its not important right?

      • Mitzi

        Wow, what a perfectly stupid person you are…..did you see where this WHITE priest secured him an education? Did you see where he secured him training in Rome? He made a choice as a young boy, followed the burden God laid on his heart and you with your profound ignorance, and Black Might bull make it about the color of his skin. YOU and ignorant people like you make an issue where there is NONE about race. You scream segregation and discrimination when YOU and ONLY YOU segregate yourself. You didn’t overcome anything adopting christianity, sweetie, you surrendered to the Call of God. How can you be so stupid as to make THAT about race? How many times do you need to hear from Presidents, Congressmen, Senators, or any other government office that it was wrong and America is ashamed and remorsful?

      • Mitzi

        Oh, BTW…..there are countless AA, directly decended from slaves who made just as much out of themself as this Priest. They are not asking for acolades. When you do that, when you stand on a soap box and say “HEY….HEY….HEY….LOOK AT MY BLACKNESS, LOOK AT WHAT I ACCOMPLISHED LOOK, IT’S SPECIAL BECAUSE I’M BLACK” What a crock. Educated people do not need acknowledgement for being successful. When you do that, you are saying it should not be expected or it is extraordinary that you are black and did something special. We are all equal, skin color or heritage do not degate a persons ability to do a job or to be educated.

  • Fr. Seraphim McCune

    AI, miracles are still required and the process is quite exhaustive. There are many whose causes for canonization have been around a LONG time without success due to the lack of verifiable miracles. If Rev. Augustine does not have two verifiable miracles attributed to his intercession, there will be no canonization.

    • Mitzi

      Fr. McCune. I love your name, Seraphim…the highest of all the angels. Perhaps you were destined to be a priest (eventually).

      I do NOT think he sould be made a Saint based on the fact that he was the first black priest. What a silly reason. And before anyone gets up in arms about my comment, save the grandstanding, save the 400 years of oppression speech, I am Native American and we were not even considered human beings until 1879. Until then, we were considered wild animals. in 1924 we were declared citizens of our own country…the one whites and blacks invaded. Mother Theresa will be a saint. She was a wonderful, loving conduit for God. She did not have expensive clothes, expensive homes or fancy cars. This woman who won the Nobel prize for peace (thats a million dollar award btw…I wonder what Obama did with is) wore a 1.00 scarf when she was laid to rest. Any financial gain she received was used to help the poor. Her whole life was dedicated to helping the poor, and being a voice for the unborn. I recall a speech she gave once “abortion is a terrible thing. Please, if you do not want your children, give them to me, I want them.” Being adamently opposed to aborting this speech has stuck with me since I was a young girl.

      There isn’t that much information in this article that would indicate he is linked to any miracle. The only thing that seems to be remarkable is the fact that he was the first black Priest. Perhaps we are not getting the full story.

      • Mitzi

        What a silly person you are…..Guess who sold Africans to the Dutch……..AFRICANS. Sold out by your own race. owned slaves….sweetie, they helped them, bred with them. Even today the majority of crimes against African-Americans are commited by African-Americans. Stop blaming the world and what happened so long ago on the color of your skin. You kill each other, rape each other, steal from each other…..more than any other race combined. Want something more interesting since you seem to be quite ignorant…..Look at the very low population percentage of AA in the US to the Prison population of AA in the US……numbers are staggering.

        There is nothing any more special or remarkable about AA than any other race.

      • dee broom

        Native American owned slaves until 1868, 3 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They did not have to adhere to the new law because they were on Indian land. So save the white man, black man invaded our land speech

      • Jane Marie

        To Mitzi you shouldn’t go shouting things you look like the idiot. For your information in Chicago on average 7/10 people arrested are white but are only prosecuted against 10% of the time. Every race rapes, murders, steals. That is human. This man should be considered an important piece of our history but not canonized.

    • Mitzi

      wow, jane, who is the idiot….who said anything about chicago? I believe I said the US, as in the nation, unless no place other than chicago exists….might that be?

  • MN Tom

    The catholic church does not need another “Saint” and Obama does not deserve the Nobel.

  • Anne

    I agree 1897??? It has been far too long for a “saintly”, compassionate person, who surely had challenges throughout his life, to receive such acknowledgement. One among many who have long been overlooked.

  • Jamie Curtis

    Is it because these men are black!!!!!!! They both are in deserving of these great recognitions. Get over it slavery days are over!!!!! People need to get of what’s on the outside and look at a persons heart!!!!! You people I tell ya!!!!!

  • Jamie Curtis


    • Jane Marie

      Please turn of your caps. No one is going to listen to an obnoxious person yelling crazy things.

  • Baldev

    It amazes me how on one hand a deeply religious person ( as they write ) sow hatred by condemnation ( ” black this and black that ” ) and on the other bestow upon themselves the honorary accolade of being a Christian. Reminds me of Nazis in our midst.
    Being an agnostic I have learned not to hate BUT I guess that is difficult to do when you have religious literatue i.e. bible and quran that spew love and hatred in the same breath.

  • Calling You Out

    Good morning, racists!

  • estudia

    Mitzi, Is it your practice to communicate your point of view by opening with childish name calling and spewing uninformed opinions that have no basis in fact? I can’t say whether or not this priest should be considered for sainthood, but you noted that a white priest arranged for him to complete his studies in Rome. Did you trot this out to infer that the black priest could not succeed without white assistance? The only intelligent comment you have posted is that perhaps we don’t have the whole story. Yet, you pontificate about the black priests candidacy without taking time to dig deeper to learn more about him. Did you know that had white people not created and packaged the American system of enslavement and disenfranchisement. this black priest would have been able to manage his own education without “assistance”. As property, this young man had no legal identity, and no rights to self determination. Don’t read benevolence into every story dealing with whites offering assistance during this period in history. More often than not, whites had to negotiate the segregated bigoted system whites themselves established.

    Not sure why you offer comments about crime statistics in a forum about a candidate for sainthood. Would the fact that substance abuse and violent crime committed by native americans is twice the national average enlighten the discourse about sainthood? This includes NA killing, raping and stealing from each other for the same reasons blacks, whites, asians and people of other races do these things, and it has nothing to do with the race of the perpetrator. Just like this story has nothing to do with the race of the priest being considered for sainthood. Remember, what little we do know from this story discusses events directly related to his enslaved status. The black priest navigated a social order of bigotry and vicious brutality he did not create and had no legal status to change. ANYTHING a non-white achieved during this period in history was measured against a reality white people violently enforced to preserve the financial, economic, employment, education advantages many whites did not earn and were not qualified to receive.
    Free your mind and teach yourself to speak the truth! Check out the books “When Affirmative Action Was White”, History of Violence in America Vol 1 and Lies My Teacher Taught Me, “Slaves in the Family (research into who sold who into slavery), and the sequel “The Sweet Hell Inside”.

  • Fabby Tovar

    I would be happy to embrace a new saint. We should honor the saints by imitating their holy lives and compassion. Mother Theresa is an example of living SAINT, who despite receiving millions of dollars in donations gave it all to charity. Can we say that about our politicians or our religious leaders.

    On a side note, it only took 500 years for Juan Diego to became a saint and he’s the first Native American saint.

  • Jim Sheridan

    I have read 2 biographies of Fr. Augustus Tolton, as well as listened to talks about him and he definitely sounds like a man of very heroic saintly virtue, regardless of what ethnic background he came from. I will continue to pray for his cause!

  • Praying in Chicago

    I am embarrassed to read the comments posted and the hatred exhibited in words, which demonstrates the taught hatred, which kept Fr. Augustus Tolton and other people enslaved in the Americas particularly in the United States out of Catholic Churches, still exists. Have you read about the struggles he encountered in a culture that deemed him as a slave compromising his human dignity assigned to him by God? Have you read about how he was a man of faith an advocate, who worked to offer a place for black citizens to worship, pray, and serve in a universal church, where he was not welcomed by his fellow priest, did you stop to consider why Rome, when there were seminaries in the United States? Since the story above explained why he was outside the church and brought in to be baptized, and was educated in Rome, there is obviously a story in what is being written, could you have exhausted the effort to imagine the experience he had when he returned home after successfully completing his studies? Before offering insight to your personality with your words, did you take a moment to consider that since human dignity is assigned by God we all should be afforded the same opportunities? To be clear there are systemic issues that are a result of the slavery e.g., the Jim Crows laws and generations of hatred passed down from one generation to the next. I see some of this taught hatred in the words written as an opposition to cause to honor a child of God enslaved, a son, a student, a priest, an advocate for education, and a tireless fund raiser for his work to build up the Body of Christ. Similar to your vantage point not being able to see why Fr. Augustus Tolton should be honored, it should be noted that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his blackness. As I reflect on what I have read I can only pray. I will pray and ask Fr. Augustine to work as an intercessor to ask God to open your mind and remove the coldness and bitterness from your heart and the hearts and minds of others who share your vantage point so that we all may have access to all opportunities available.

    • Praying in Chicago


      Similar to your vantage point not being able to see why Fr. Augustus Tolton should be honored, it should be noted that President Obama was NOT awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his blackness.

    • Mitzi

      I’m confused by the people who think that because of his race, his former slave status that he has worked a Divine miracle. It’s a lot to overcome of course, but a Divine miracle it is not. It is unfortunate that so much racism occured. We cannot change history. But I posted before…don’t expect to be lauded for being black, white, NA, hispanic, or any other race and doing a great job at anything. When you do that, you’re saying it is something extraordinary that a black, white, red or whatever color your skin is person did it. We are all equal. We are not prevented from doing anything by the color of our skin. WE are our only road block. People who claim otherwise are making excuses for shortcomings or failure. Had he performed a true Divine miracle, I would be the first to agree to him becoming a Saint. None have been recorded as far as I can read anywhere and I’ve actually spent this weekend reading about him. He was amazing to say the least but not because of his race, but because he was a true man of God.

      And to the poster who wrote regarding NA substance abuse….I will be the first to say that NAs are almost genetically predisposed to be alcoholics…which is why I not only never drink myself, but why I divorced my husband….who by the way is 1/4 black. Crime rate? We make up less than 1% (0.8%) of the population of this country……where are you getting your statistics from? are any of them criminals? YEP.

      And to the person who said NA got away with owning slaves because they lived on Reservations…..Man, are you ignorant… to check when they were “given” the land we call reservations? How can someone not even considerded a human being, who was considered an wild animal/savage possibly own anything? They cannot, not at least according to the Government. Shall we debate on this quarum about a priest being considered for Sainthood any other race issues not dealing with the topic?

  • estudia

    Mitzi, back away from the keyboard before you hurt yourself! I am embarrassed for you! In fact, you are the only one on this post who insists on discussing the race of the priest or his former [en]slaved status in the same context of the real issue, which is whether or not his works merit his candidacy for sainthood. No one else is confused, it truly is just you. It is clear that you rushed to the keyboard to use this story to launch your racist rants.

    Also, regarding the issue of whether NA owned slaves, take the time to gather the facts and comment only on what is true. Slavery,and indentured servitude were terms that had different meanings at various times in American history, With that said, FACT – some Native Americans tribes DID enslave human beings of African descent, and it is also true that blacks were welcomed and fully integrated into some tribes after escaping from slavery. It is also true that Native Americans were the first enslaved group used as a source of free labor, and as white diseases decimated the NA population, the labor force was replenished with enslaved Africans. It is not accurate for anyone to state that NA got away with owning slaves because they lived on reservations. The concept of reservations as they exist today did not fully exist during the time slavery was initially practiced. NA lived and worked on their ancestral lands and negotiated their legal status as free people with the white power structure on the state and federal level. As American expansion into the south and the west accelerated, treaties were negated and NA were increasingly forced from their lands onto reservations.

    • Mitzi

      Well, Estudia…you need to study more and make good on your screen name. The entire article is about him being the first black Saint. And do NOT try to educate me on NA history my dear, I assure you MY version is the truth being as it came from my direct ancestors and not from the little story books you read in school. You use bits of truth to try to convince people you know what you’re talking about when the truth is, you know little about NA history. The history books are not accurate. You’re an idiot for calling me a racist…..yes, I’m such a racist I married a man who is NA, AA, and white…and proceded to have 4 children with him because I’m just such a racist. What is clear, is that you like to argue moot points. What is clear is you didn’t read the title to this article. You’re a fool. You should try to read (get help with the big words if you need to) what I reply to and not just my reply you silly little fool.

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