Andrae Goodnight portrays Father Augustus Tolton in the production “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” at DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago in this Nov. 5, 2017 file photo. (Karen Callaway/CNS, via Chicago Catholic)
Servant of God
Fr. Augustus Tolton
(Courtesy of the National Black Catholic Congress)

Born: April 1, 1854
Ordained: April 24, 1886 at St. John Lateran Basilica for the Diocese of Alton (now Springfield)
Assigned to the Archdiocese of Chicago: Dec. 19, 1889
Died: July 9, 1897
Declared Servant of God: Feb. 13, 2012




July 9*

Born into slavery, young Augustus fled to freedom with his mother and two siblings through the woods of northern Missouri and across the Mississippi River while being pursued by bounty hunters and soldiers. He was only 9 years old. The small family made their home in Quincy, Illinois, a sanctuary for runaway slaves. The boy’s father had died earlier in St. Louis, after escaping slavery to serve in the Union Army.

Growing up in Quincy and serving at Mass, young Augustus felt a call to the priesthood, but, because of rampant racism, no seminary in the United States would accept him. He headed to Rome, convinced he would become a missionary priest serving in Africa. However, after Ordination, he was sent back to his hometown to be a missionary to the community there, again facing rampant racism.

He was such a good preacher that many white Catholics joined his black parishioners in the pews for his Masses. This upset the white priests in the town, who made life very difficult for him as a result. After three years, Fr. Tolton moved to Chicago to minister to the black community, at the request of Archbishop Patrick Feehan.

Fr. Tolton worked to the point of exhaustion for his congregation and on July 9, 1897, he died of heatstroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43.

*He was named a Servant of God in 2012 and is a patron of the Diocese of Phoenix Black Catholic Ministry. Although there are no formal feast days for servants of God in the Church, July 9 is the day Fr. Tolton entered eternal life.