Slave turned priest is recognised by Vatican

A former US slave who became the first African-American to become a Catholic priest, is now one step closer toward sainthood.

Pope Francis made Father Augustus Tolton “Venerable” within the church, alongside seven others, in a Vatican announcement on Wednesday.

Born on a plantation, he escaped slavery with his family in childhood.

However, racial discrimination in the US meant he had to travel to Rome to get his priest’s training.

Wednesday’s decree recognised his “heroic virtues” – and puts Father Tolton only two steps away from canonisation.

To become a saint, he would have to have two miracles attributed to him approved by the Vatican.

The priest is now nine years into the canonisation process, including a 2016 exhumation of his body.

The change in status means Catholics can now pray to him for intercession with God.

‘From slave to priest’

Augustine Tolton was born on 1 April 1854 in Brush Creek, Missouri.

As a teenager his mother, Martha Jane Chisley, was gifted to her slave owners as a wedding gift. At the plantation she met another slave, Peter Paul Tolton, whom she married and had three children with.

As civil war broke out Augustine’s father escaped to fight, and later died, for the Union army.

The rest of their family then fled from slavery to Quincy, Illinois.

Chicago Western Citizen advertisement for the Liberty Line, which is a thinly veiled reference to the Underground Railroad which has 'Seats Free, irrespective of color'
Some reports suggest his family fled with help of the underground railroad. Image copyright: CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM/ GETTY

He and his siblings were then enrolled in a local all-white Catholic school, but were forced out by angry local parents.

With the help of a local priest, Augustine’s education and involvement with the church continued in spite of protests and he was confirmed aged 16.

Despite requests by his mentor, every teaching seminary and order in the US rejected him because of his race.

In his twenties his family moved back to Missouri. Eventually another priest, in desperation, wrote to Rome on his behalf. The plan worked and in 1880 he departed to Italy for training and was ordained in 1886.

‘Good Father Gus’

Father Tolton returned to Quincy – where he welcomed black and white parishioners alike.

However, he reportedly attracted the ire of a new pastor who aimed racial slurs at him and dissuaded white Catholics from attending his services. Given the difficult situation, he reluctantly requested a transfer.

In December 1889 he was approved to move to the Archdiocese of Chicago – where he would be given full jurisdiction over African-American parishioners.

A sign for Archdiocese of Chicago
The Archdiocese of Chicago has led the way for him to be remembered. Image copyright: Getty Images

With the population facing unemployment and endemic poverty, he fundraised to build a church for local black Catholics.

Construction started in 1893 but was halted two years later due to lack of funding.

Under extreme pressure, Father Tolton became overwhelmed with illness. In July 1897, aged 43, he died from complications from heat stroke.

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago announced his cause for canonisation in 2010. He then received the designation “Servant of God” by the Vatican one year later.

“From slave to priest. That’s an amazing American story,” Michael Patrick Murphy, director of Catholic Studies for Loyola University Chicago, told the AP news agency.

“He went from having lived amid the greatest sin in American culture to being a minister that would address that kind of moral crime, a fully scoped life.”

Main image copyright: Alamy

First published 13.06.19:

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