Born into slavery in Ralls County, Missouri to Catholic parents in 1854, Augustus Tolton was destined to become the United States' first recognized African American priest. But his road would not be an easy one.
With his mother and siblings he escaped to Illinois and freedom during the Civil War and eventually settled in Quincy, Illinois, where the family found work. Some priests and nuns encouraged and taught him, while others were hostile to his desire to become a priest. His attendance at the parish school led to racist threats. After years of rejection from U.S. seminaries, Tolton finally traveled to Rome for his studies, where he was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31. He had hoped to become a missionary to Africa, said an Associated Press story, but was assigned to parish work in Quincy, Illinois, New York, Baltimore, Texas and later Chicago, at St. Monica's parish. At St. Monica's the beloved Tolton was known to parishioners at "Good Father Gus" and admired for his homilies and singing voice. Tolton died of heat stroke on his way back to Chicago from a retreat in Kankakee, Illinios in 1897 at age 43.
Tolton was and continues to be a source of encouragement for African American Catholics. "Young people can look to Father Augustine's legacy—and be inspired and be able to say, 'If he could do it, so could I," said African American Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers of Portland, Oregon. Burke-Sivers wrote the introduction to a reissue of Sister Caroline Hemesath's 1973 biography of Tolton, From Slave to Priest..
Tolton's struggle continues, said Adrienne Curry, managing editor of the Black Catholic Chicago website: "We're faced with the same issues in the church—needing churches we can go to that feed our needs, and education we can afford, and still facing racism in the church," she said. "I think Father Tolton would be saddened but hopeful at the same time—just like we are."
Here's a video on the life of Father Tolton: