By Father Timothy Gollob
Special to The Texas Catholic
Several weeks ago, I got an eye-opening education on the life of the first Black Roman Catholic priest in the United States, Father Augustus Tolton. This came in the form of the play, “Tolton…From Slave to Priest,” which was presented as a one-man drama at Bishop Dunne Catholic School and at St. Rita Catholic Church.
I found many inspiring facts about this “Servant of God,” who was born in1854 into a slave family. His father was Peter Paul Tolton, who would escape slavery when Augustus was a young boy. Peter Paul went to where he could fight for the freedom of his people.
Augustus’ mother, Martha Jane Chisley, had been raised a Roman Catholic and when she had him baptized, the wife of the slave master stood as his godmother. Martha Jane was a strong, confident woman and she ran away from bondage with her children Samuel, Charley, Augustus and Anne.
During the dangers of crossing from Missouri into the free state of Illinois, she showed great courage and determination. Crossing the Mississippi River in a small rowboat, she never stopped praying and asking God for strength.
This was the spiritual power that she inspired in the calling of her son Augustus to work to help support the family, to go to schools where he was belittled and to seek a vocation to the priesthood despite the fact that no seminary in North America would accept him.
He found a powerful ally in the Irish priest, Father Peter McGirr. This man of God saw in the young Augustus a person of determination and of great spiritual and moral skills.
After many disappointments, Augustus was accepted for the Pontifical Ubaniana Seminary in Rome. He excelled in Latin and Greek and Italian. After his ordination at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1886, he was sent to his home town of Quincey, Illinois. He was not well received there so the bishop transferred him to Chicago.
There he was well loved for his sermons, his musical voice, his playing of the harmonica and the love for his people. He established the first Black National Church in that city.
But his health was not sturdy enough for the many needs of his flock. He died in the heat of July in 1897 at the age of 43.
His cause for beatification is ongoing. May his prayers foster many vocations in the way his mother inspired him.
Father Timothy Gollob is the pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Oak Cliff.