Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago speaks about America’s first black priest
Bishop Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, recently visited South Bend to speak about the heroic life of Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first African American ordained to the priesthood. Bp. Perry, the postulator of Fr. Tolton’s cause for canonization, addressed a crowd gathered at Holy Cross College on February 16 as part of the Mind & Heart Lecture Series.
Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in the state of Missouri in 1854. The son of Catholic parents, he was raised in the faith even before escaping slavery along with his mother and siblings in 1863. Bp. Perry, a captivating storyteller, narrated the family’s journey: “Upon arriving on shore, [Tolton’s mother] gathered her children up in her arms and she told them: children, you are free. You are free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord.”
Though they remained steadfast in their faith, the Tolton family endured many hardships after settling in Quincy, Illinois. Segregated from their white brethren at Mass, the Toltons were unwelcome in their parish community; the boys were quickly dismissed from their local Catholic school.
Nevertheless, Augustus found compassionate priests and religious sisters who tutored him and encouraged his vocation to the priesthood. After being rejected from every seminary in the United States, Tolton was finally accepted as a seminarian in Rome at the Vatican’s Congregation de Propaganda Fidei where he learned fluent Italian and excelled in the study of Latin and Koine Greek. Ordained in Rome at the age of 31, Fr. Tolton celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter Day, 1886.
After ordination, Fr. Tolton expected Rome to send him to Africa as a missionary. However, the cardinal prefect of the Propaganda Fidei decided that Fr. Tolton was to return to Illinois. Bp. Perry recounted: “It was thought America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation on the face of the earth. ‘We will see now whether it deserves that honor,’ said the cardinal prefect.”
Upon arriving back in the United States, “Fr. Gus” was assigned priest of the St. Augustine Society, a group for black Catholics in Chicago which celebrated liturgies in a parish basement. Though well known for his homilies, few writings of Fr. Tolton survive—only 13 letters are now extant, “most of these … painful missives sent to Mother, now Saint, Katherine Drexel.” Bp. Perry continued, “Mother Drexel seems to have become Tolton’s confidant—he would open up to her in confidence about the trials of being the first black Catholic priest in America.”
Over the course of his 11 years as a priest, Fr. Tolton faced racial hatred not merely from his neighbors, but even from Catholics and fellow clergy: “Considering the type of inner suffering he endured, patience, humility, and courage were certainly habitual acts as antidotes to the prevailing mood of a country terribly ambivalent about the place of blacks,” Bp. Perry said.
Ven. Augustus Tolton died on July 9, 1897. Bp. Perry told the audience, “Tolton was found to be a devoted priest of Jesus Christ—who just happened to be black—open to any and everyone seeking the ministrations and services of the Church, white or black or whatever. But unfortunately, he was resented for it.”
Reflecting on the hatred suffered by Tolton, Bp. Perry said, “the parochialism and racial isolation endemic to the times feeds the tenor of social relations in this country to present times.”
Commenting on contemporary culture, Bp. Perry continued, “Left untreated, largely, is the fact that the dominant society suffers both visual and emotional dissonance when a black person enters their space.
“Notions of opportunity and advantage are deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Too many aspects of this psyche, from a Christian standpoint, are sinful, for which we pray: ‘Lord have mercy on what we have done and what we have failed to do.’ America’s self-interested individualism, valued as one of the highest virtues in this democracy, will keep us from the necessary solutions to our national problem,” the bishop concluded.
Andrew Oullette is the Director of Foundation and Church Relations at Holy Cross College and was instrumental in the event’s organization. He told the Rover, “I hope that our students—and others attending—were challenged to consider the sin of racism as a sin that people might still be capable of today (without falling into the modern political polemics that divide our country).
“All Catholics can learn from the virtuous life of Tolton—in particular, his fortitude in the face of adversity, his gentleness against racial anger, and his forgiving love as an antidote to hatred… I hope that a greater devotion to Augustus Tolton may arise in the American Church leading to his canonization,” Oullette concluded.
Fr. Tolton was declared ‘Venerable’ by Pope Francis in 2019 in formal recognition of his heroic virtue. The next step in his cause for canonization is beatification, which requires Vatican ascription of a miracle to his intercession and would allow the faithful to pray for Fr. Tolton’s intercession in public liturgy. After an additional approved miracle, a blessed is eligible for canonization. More information on Ven. Augustus Tolton’s cause can be found through the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Paul Howard is a junior in medieval studies and classics from Kinderhook, New York. Paul presently suspects that “JP Butrus” is simply the poorly-concocted pen name of PJ Butler. He welcomes all evidence at email@example.com.
Photo Credit: Ven. Augustus Tolton. Picture from the Archdiocese of Chicago
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