November is National Black Catholic History Month. In commemoration of that here is an excerpt from editor Joyce Duriga’s new book “Augustus Tolton: The Church is the True Liberator,” Liturgical Press, $14.95. Tolton is the first recognized black priest ordained for the United States. The archdiocese opened his cause for canonization in 2011.
Runaway slaves and freed men and women established Chicago’s first black Catholic community in the 1840s. But it was not until 1881 when some type of official parish formed.
Father Joseph Rowles, pastor of St. Mary Parish, on Ninth and Wabash streets just south of the city’s business center, and on the edge of the segregated neighborhood for blacks, reached out to black Catholics and with them started the St. Augustine Society, named after the great African saint and bishop.
Many of these members moved to the city from areas in the South that were historically Catholic and where they would have been educated in the faith. Rowles celebrated Mass for this society and they reached out to other blacks about the message of the church.
Black Catholics celebrated Mass in the basement of St. Mary for seven years. This sub-parish was dependent on St. Mary’s for financial support.
While many were poor themselves, members of the St. Augustine Society managed a “common fund” to which all contributed and that was supplemented by donations from white friends that allowed the society to help the poor, visit the sick and bury the dead among their people. For everything else, they relied upon St. Mary’s for support.
Worshippers were a mix of those barred from other Catholic churches in the city, some people from other denominations who were recipients of the society’s charity and newcomers from the South coming to the city for jobs. These black Catholics, like their counterparts around the country, were anxious to have their own pastor.
A year after Father Augustus Tolton’s ordination in 1886, they approached Archbishop Patrick Feehan, asking that he try to have the country’s first black priest transferred to Chicago. Eventually Archbishop Feehan succeeded.
At the end of 1889, Tolton boarded the train for Chicago, some 300 miles northeast of Quincy. He began his Chicago ministry in the all-purpose basement of St. Mary’s Church.
When he reported to Archbishop Feehan, Tolton was appointed pastor of St. Augustine with full jurisdiction over all black Catholics in Chicago. Unsure of his lodgings, Tolton left his mother and his sister Anne in Quincy for the time.
One of his first tasks was to plan the building of a church because the community was eager to have its own space and St. Mary’s was in sore need of the basement space for other parish activities. Tolton found a one-room apartment at 2251 S. Indiana Ave. in a run-down neighborhood. Not long after, he secured a rectory at 448 36th St. and opened a storefront church that he called St. Monica Chapel, after the mother of St. Augustine.
At this point he was finally able to fulfill his promise to his mother and sister to bring them to Chicago.
Appeals for Tolton to lecture and visit black Catholics around the country did not decrease with his move to Chicago. The “world’s most conspicuous man,” as he was called in the American Catholic Tribune, accepted some of the invitations, mainly as a way to raise money for his new parish, St. Monica.
In a letter to Josephite Father John Slattery, rector of St. Joseph Seminary for Colored Missions in Baltimore, he wished for “27 Father Toltons or colored priests” who could meet the number of requests from around the country to visit and lecture. It would have been “a grand thing,” he said, to be a traveling missionary ministering to black Catholics around the country.
That was not where God placed him, however. Instead he was focused on the 270 souls from 400 families in Chicago. He wrote of turning down a lecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, because he was trying to gather more people for his parish “for these poor people here who had been left in a bag with both ends open if I must say it and the Irish bishop has given them all up to me.”
The fact that he was living in poverty with his people, did not receive a salary and rarely had a break because there were so many people who needed his help was noted in a letter from Mary C. Elmore to Slattery.
Despite all of the positive press Tolton received in the Josephites’ magazine and in the American Catholic Tribune, “he is left to struggle on almost alone; in poverty and humility, grappling with the giant task of founding a church and congregation in Chicago,” she wrote. His ardent charity and self-denying zeal was ever apparent and an inspiring witness to others. Everyone felt blessed to be in his presence, Elmore wrote.
Just before Tolton’s arrival in Chicago, Daniel Rudd’s American Catholic Tribune, a national newspaper for black Catholics, hired Captain Lincoln C. Valle as its Chicago correspondent. While Tolton’s moves were often chronicled in this newspaper, the whole of his Chicago community was also featured in these pages upon his arrival. Valle became one of Tolton’s friends, a close collaborator, and an outspoken champion of black Catholics in the city.
Valle interviewed Tolton in the American Catholic Tribune a little over one year after the priest’s arrival in Chicago. Tolton shared the hurdles he faced and continued to face in ministering to the black Catholic community: “I began my mission on the 29th of November 1889, under many difficulties. At first the Colored people were scattered, having no special shepherd, they were fast drifting into Protestantism. No one can really imagine the heart of a young priest, going into a strange city seeking those of his own faith who have become cool and indifferent,” Tolton told Valle.
With about 20 committed people, Tolton took over services in St. Mary’s basement. After just four months, 200 people were regularly attending Mass and were committed to building their own church.
While he began working on that prospect upon his arrival in Chicago, white people who donated to the fund in the past questioned where the money was going. White friends of the parish were asking, “How long will you be building up your church? These Colored people have been begging for nine years and no church yet. What has become of all the money collected for that purpose?”
Tolton said. “I had a bank note of $1,419 to show them. By that means they see that the Colored Catholics were accumulating that amount nine years; but how can property be bought and a church built with so small an amount? When property in Chicago, as everybody knows, is not low. With that small amount I began to purchase property amounting to $9,000.”
Support from Archbishop Feehan and “three Irish ladies” buoyed Tolton, but other white Catholics refused to donate until the cornerstone was laid. “As to collections, I have not received one cent. Still the question arises, ‘What is Father Tolton doing? He surely receives a share of that collection?’ Had I, I would have begun my church ere [sic] this hour. His Grace, the Archbishop, intends to look into the matter.”
To keep the payments up on the property, he arranged fairs and other events and tried to keep the people encouraged. He questioned mandated collections for the church overseas when so much support was needed at home. That charity should include sending black men to seminary to become priests for the community, he said.
“How do we expect for them to study if they are not brought up in the faith? How can they be brought into the faith if the priest has no means nor ways to bring them into the faith? How can we bring them into the faith without a suitable place and how can we have a suitable place without the necessary assistance? Let us remember that colleges must depend upon the priests in the missions for its aspirants and they ought to be encouraged in every possible way,” Tolton told Valle.
“I am alone and am sorry for it for the more Colored priests we have, the more sure we are gaining over a great number of our people since they have said to me, ‘Father Tolton, I think it is glorious for us to have a priest of our own nationality. Since we can approach them with confidence knowing they will not give us hard feelings.’ ”
Tolton also told Valle that people regularly asked him why he didn’t go to a diocese in the South to minister.
His answer was first, the Propaganda Fide, which ordained him, sent him to Quincy and then he was called to Chicago.
“If I save 500 of these souls in this city I will say ‘Now dismiss thy servant, O Lord.’ ” Tolton felt pressured from all sides, as often happens to those blazing a path in history. Not only did he receive pressure to build a church, missions and priests that he turned down for speaking engagements felt slighted and told him he was disappointing his people. They did not consider that he turned down engagements to serve his congregation.
“By my refusal I received strong replies, then my conscience told me to remain at home, through fear that my own little flock would be scattered, hence these are my reasons for not appearing in the 39 places that desire me at this present time,” he is quoted as saying. “O! How grand it would be to have 39 colored priests to go to those places and sow the good seed of the word of God in the hearts of those dear colored people. The harvest is great, the workers few and far between. I can determine as far as I am able to collect many aspirants for the priesthood, for I have the salvation of my people at heart.”
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Father Augustus Tolton's sainthood cause, said he was "touched emotionally" by the portrayal of the African-American priest's boyhood and family life in the new short film "Across."
The canonization cause for Servant of God Augustus Tolton is just one step away from going to Pope Francis where the priest to be declared “venerable.” The remaining steps in the process to canonization are to be declared “blessed” and “saint.”
When Archbishop Blase Cupich takes over the Archdiocese of Chicago, he’ll also oversee the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Augustus Tolton.