Book Review: From Slave to Priest

From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) is the story of Fr. Augustine Tolton, the first black priest in the United States (a number of mixed-race priests preceded him, but they self-identified as white). Written by Sister Caroline Hemesath in 1973, a new addition was released by Ignatius Press in 2006 with a forward by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers.

Part of my interest in Fr. Tolton’s story is personal: he spent his formative years in Quincy, Illinois, and attended St. Francis Solanus College, which later became Quincy University, my alma mater (a number of the photos in the book come from the school’s archives). I remember hearing allusions to the first black priest during my time at Quincy, but it wasn’t until my graduate studies that I became acquainted with the larger story of Fr. Tolton’s life.

Born a slave to a Catholic family near Hannibal, Missouri, his father escaped to join the Union Army at the start of the Civil War; he was killed in battle. When he was 8 Augustine’s mother escaped with the boy and his two siblings across the Mississippi River and wound up in nearby Quincy. There he worked in a tobacco factory by day and, in his spare time and during the winter months, he received instruction from the local priests and religious sisters. It was during this time that he first felt God’s call to the priesthood.

Unfortunately Augustine was turned down by every seminary and religious order he applied to. Undeterred, he traveled to Rome where he studied at the Urban College de Propaganda Fide, after which he expected to be sent as a missionary priest to Africa. Instead he returned to Quincy where he pastored St. Joseph’s, the city’s black parish.

In Quincy Fr. Tolton met with resistance and outright hostility from white Catholics (who resented the donations he received from sympathetic whites) and black Protestants (who resented his evangelization of their congregants). Discouraged and not receiving any support from his bishop, he accepted a transfer to Chicago where he was put in charge of the city’s black Catholics. Starting with a small congregation meeting in a church basement, within a few years he led a growing parish and had begun construction on a new church building. His work in Chicago was cut short in 1897 when, upon returning home from a retreat, he collapsed (most likely as a result of heat stroke) and died. He is buried in Quincy at St. Peter’s Seminary.

Although she did a fair amount of research and interviews for the book (as evidenced by the bibliography), Sr. Hemesath presents Fr. Tolton’s life in a series of fictionalized vignettes, a sort of œspeculative biography. The result is, if not 100% accurate, extremely readable and provides a good picture of what Fr. Tolton’s life was probably like. She is particularly adept at presenting the trials Fr. Tolton endured: the constant rejection by seminaries in his own country, the years spent building up money to pay for studies in Rome, the harassment at the hands of a fellow priest in Quincy. His was not a happy life, insofar as he never seems to have found a place to truly call home where he could be a simple pastor (which seems to have been his only real wish).

On the other hand, his trials never diminished his love of the Church, even in its human brokenness. Fr. Tolton’s example of bearing his cross ” a cross of racism, hate and bigotry ” in a humble manner, calling on God for strength and help, is a timely reminder of how we are called to live out this Lenten season through almsgiving, fasting and prayer in recognition of our sinful nature. Rather than bemoan his fortune Fr. Tolton sought one thing only: to serve God and his people. May we, too, live out such a simple yet beautiful goal.