The Story of America’s First Black Priest, Augustus Tolton

The story of America’s first black priest begins with a miraculous escape from slavery in 1862.

Augustus Tolton, who is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church, was born enslaved in Missouri in April 1854. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, had him baptized Catholic, the faith of the family that owned them.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Peter Tolton ran away to join the Union Army. Months later, Martha Tolton also fled with her three children, Augustus, Charles and Anne — a bid for freedom that nearly ended in capture.

The Toltons were chased through the woods by Confederate slave catchers.

“We stayed hidden in the bushes, afraid to breathe,” recounted actor Jim Coleman, who is starring as Augustus Tolton in the one-man play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” which is being performed at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria during a national tour. “They dragged us out. But like angels coming down from heaven, we saw Union soldiers. They smuggled us into a dilapidated row boat and pushed out into the mighty Mississippi River.”

The Confederate soldiers continued to shoot at the boat, as Augustus’s mother rowed across the muddy river.

“Bullets whizzed by our heads. We crouched down in bottom of boat,” the actor playing Augustus says. “That is when our Mama showed us what she was made of. Mother courageously rowed that boat. With each stroke, she prayed, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.’ ”

When they made it safely across the river to freedom in Illinois, Martha Tolton broke down and cried. In Illinois, they got directions to the small settlement of Quincy, where they joined a Catholic church. Tolton’s mother took him to a Catholic school and asked the priest to allow Augustus to study there.

“He was initially welcomed into one of the Catholic schools,” Coleman said in an interview, “but he was kicked out because parishioners didn’t want a negro child in the school.”

A priest, Father Peter McGirr, was impressed by Tolton’s intelligence and mentored him, teaching him Latin and Greek. He encouraged Tolton to enter the priesthood.

“McGirr promised Augustus he would be educated,” Coleman said. “He wrote letters in the U.S. to get Augustus into a seminary. None accepted him because of his race. Then Father McGirr wrote letters to Rome, saying this individual was brilliant.”

In 1880, Tolton was sent to Rome, where he entered the seminary at Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide. Six years later, on April 24, 1886, at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest.

“Pope Leo XIII delegated Cardinal Giovanni Parocchi to officiate at the ceremony,” according to a biography by the organization seeking sainthood for Tolton.

Tolton celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “It was April 25, 1886, Easter Sunday,” according to the Tolton canonization biography. “Pilgrims and tourists must have wondered when they saw a red-robed cardinal taking his place beside a black priest.”

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Source: Washington Post