Mass remembers life, ministry of Martha Jane Tolton

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Mass remembers life, ministry of Martha Jane Tolton

Worshippers come together for a Mass on Nov. 13, 2021 at the Church of the Holy Family, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the death of Martha Jane Tolton, the mother of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, who faithfully served at his side during his lifetime. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ciff Barber, chief strategy officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, prays during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
C. Vanessa White, associate professor of spirituality and ministry at Catholic Theological Union and a member of the Augustus Tolton Guild, introduces Glenda Spearman who would deliver a reflection in place of the homily. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, vice postulator for the canonization cause of Father Tolton, prays at the altar while Father David Jones, pastor of St. Benedict the African Parish and a member of the Augustus Tolton Guild, looks on. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Glenda Spearman, chaplain at Lurie Children's Hospital, shares the sign of peace with C. Vanessa White. Spearman delivered a reflection about the valor of Martha Tolton. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Jones distributes Communion. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
John G. Igwebuike prays during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Karine Guignard lays flowers at the grave of Martha Jane Tolton in Mount Olivet Cemetery on Nov. 13. The service was held following the Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Far left, Father Greg Rom leads a prayer service at the grave of Martha Tolton. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

On the 110th anniversary of the passing of Martha Jane Tolton, mother of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, worshippers gathered Nov. 13 at the Church of the Holy Family, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, for a memorial Mass.

“According to what we can surmise from research, this is probably the first Mass that has been offered for Martha Jane Chisley Tolton since her funeral Mass here in Chicago back in 1911,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, vice postulator for Tolton’s canonization cause. “And we pay tribute to her simply because without her courage, her stamina, and her foresight and her determination we would never have learnt of her son.”

Those characteristics were on display when Martha Tolton took her three children and fled to freedom after the plantation owner in Brush Creek, Missouri, died and his widow began inventorying the estate, which was in debt, and assessing the value of the enslaved people. If she had not fled with her children, they might have been sold to other owners and their family broken apart.

Martha Tolton led her children through 20 miles of prairie wilderness, with bounty hunters trying to track them down, to the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri. There, with the help of some Union soldiers, she secured a small boat and rowed herself and her children across the river to freedom in Illinois. 

The four then walked 20 more miles to settle in Quincy. She found work in a tobacco factory to support her children and continued to form their faith. When Father Tolton was ordained and sent back to the United States to minister, she became his sacristan, helping him with his duties and doing her own form of motherly ministry to the people. They called her Mother Tolton.

In place of a homily, Glenda Spearman, senior staff chaplain at Lurie Children’s Hospital and a graduate of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union, offered a reflection on the legacy of Martha Tolton and called her “a woman of valor.”

In Hebrew Scriptures, the word for valor translates to “good, capable, valiant, virtuous” and often refers to warriors, Spearman noted. “But in Proverbs 31, it refers to women. It refers to their strength, hardworking, a trustworthy spouse, strong at home and work,” she said. “She is more precious than jewels and beyond pearls,” she said.

Martha Tolton exemplified valor throughout her life.

“We have found a woman of valor in the life, the exemplary life and faith, of Mother Martha Jane Tolton. She pointed her son to Christ, to God, just as another mother of valor, the Blessed Mother Mary, points us to the fidelity and sacrifice to her son,” Spearman said. “These women provide a message for all of us today: Be women of valor; be men of valor; be people of valor; people on the battlefield of life. Remain strong in your faith and loyal to your God. Serve and care for one another. Be valiant and virtuous. Be strong, and wise and conduct yourselves with dignity and kindness.”

Following the Mass, a small group traveled 30 minutes south to Mount Olivet Cemetery for a service at the gravesite of Martha Tolton. She is buried there along with her daughter Anne and her granddaughter Rosa.

Karine Guignard was one of those who attended cemetery service.

“She’s the mother of Augustus Tolton and if wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have been able to see Tolton here,” Guignard said. “She sacrificed a lot for her son to become a priest even though American did not accept him.”

Martha Tolton encouraged her son every step of the way and embodied the valor that Spearman talked about a Mass, she said.

“It’s an inspiration, I believe, to all women, to be strong and listen to God and maybe hear the Spirit talking so you’ll know what to do, you’ll know what the next move is,” Guignard said.


  • augustus tolton

Related Articles