Slavery is more than just a historical period in our history, it represents a breakdown in the fabric of human relations.

“From Slave to Priest,” by Sr. Caroline Hemesath, SSF, is available through
“From Slave to Priest,” by Sr. Caroline Hemesath, SSF, is available through

A book by Sr. Caroline Hemesath, SSF, “From Slave to Priest,” tells the true story of a man born in bondage who escaped the South as a child, gained freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation, battled prejudice, and whose irrepressible faith led him to an unspeakable triumph — the priesthood.

The conditions under which Fr. Augustine Tolton endured his early childhood were reprehensible as were any condition of bondage.

What we can take from Sr. Caroline’s book is that the faith that sustained Fr. Tolton through the darkest times is the same faith that can turn us away from the easy road that leads away from the Church and its teachings and back toward the true freedom with which Christ cloaks us all.

Just as for us today, priests were there to help young Augustine. Several priests took up his cause when they recognized in him the priestly gifts. Those priests battled seminaries and religious orders around the country who were “not ready for negroes.”

Vehement racial prejudice undermined the priests’ efforts and accounted for the loss of a great number of freed slaves who were Catholic but could not find a home.

The story goes beyond  Fr. Tolton’s singular quest for the priesthood, however, and poses for us, the larger questions of justice, which we still face today. Fr. Richardt, Toulton’s main pre-seminary tutor, brought up the question of St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of justice.

“What is justice according to St. Thomas?” Fr. Richardt asked. Toulton knew that it meant to give every person his due. “And what is his due?” Richardt continued.

The priest did not wait for an answer and said that every person’s due comes from the natural law, codified in the words, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Fr. Toulton had an epiphany — a very important one for us — in slavery, any kind of slavery, the body might be in bondage, but for the person created in the image of God, the soul and the will can never be owned.

Slave owners sometimes denied life to slaves — especially the old and the infirm — they always denied liberty, and we could never define the pursuit of happiness — the reaching of a person’s potential — within the context of slavery.

These three things, thus, were the reasons why slavery was unjust.

This question is even larger, however: taking the life of an infirm person, a disabled person, keeping a person in a state of terror, taking a life for a crime committed, taking lives in an unjust war, any taking of life anywhere along the human life-cycle is unjust because it robs the person of life, liberty, and the pursuit of their potential.

How many Martin Luther King Juniors, Booker T. Washingtons, and even Barack Obamas were lost to us during slavery, never given their due, never given a chance to work to fulfill God’s plan for them?

In this light, how then are we able to frame a discussion about abortion, injustice committed at the very beginning of the human life-cycle?

One thing Fr. Tolton teaches us is that singular devotion and the perseverance in faith to follow God’s will cannot end in failure.

In February, 1880, 10 years after his pastor first asked young Augustine if he wanted to be a priest, after countless rejections by seminaries and religious orders and a daily battle with racial prejudice among others in the parishes, he finally boarded a train headed for the East Coast and then on to Rome to the Pontifical College.

Once there, he encountered a whole new people of God, ones who believed in the sanctity of life, ones who treated Fr. Tolton with the respect due him as a person created imago dei, and ones who created a place for him to thrive.

And he did. He worked hard and was finally ordained, but instead of going to Africa as a missionary priest as he hoped, he was sent back to the United States, back to the place he escaped from.

He made the best of it, bravely fought racial prejudice, even among fellow priests, and he failed. The congregation he belonged to allowed him a transfer to Chicago and there he triumphed.

The book is a revelation, a reminder that evils like prejudice are only a few words away. A great, inspiring read.