Black History Month: The legacy of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton

Father Augustus Tolton is pictured in an undated photo. Born into slavery in Missouri, he was ordained a priest April 24, 1886, in Rome and said his first Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. He is the first recognized African American priest ordained for the U.S. Catholic Church and is a candidate for sainthood. In 2019, Pope Francis declared he had lived a "virtuous and heroic life," giving him the title "Venerable." (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)


Editor’s note: A cause for canonization is underway for Father Augustus Tolton, declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2019. Venerable Father Augustus Tolton is known as the first Black Catholic priest in America.


Augustus Tolton grew up like any young Black kid in the 19th century with the challenges of oppression and of slavery. What was never taken away from Tolton was his family and the Catholic faith.

He was born on April 1, 1854, to Martha Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton, both slaves and devout Catholics. His childhood could be likened to that of the Holy Family; his mother, with his siblings, escaped the cruel experience of slavery and fled to the “free state” of Illinois.

What were the institutions that planted the seed of vocation in his heart? They were his family and Catholic education. The desire for a priestly vocation grew in him, but the system became an obstacle – and God still made it happen, as he always does.

Tolton struggled through the rejections and human objections and followed God, whom he was convinced was going to see him through the challenges. He became a priest. As in Isaiah 53:3, “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.”

My dear friends, Father Tolton is a testimony of the faithfulness of God, the fruit of parents as the first catechists to their children, the gift of the family as a domestic Church, the tremendous impact of Catholic education in our lives, and the power of persistent faith and resilience.

Father Tolton did not find it easy in his time and yet he endured and remained a good-hearted model of Christ, being present to the flock entrusted in his care. One of the many legacies of Father Tolton was how he gracefully incorporated his “blackness” into his ministry and showcased in his love for Christ and the Church that God chooses all races and all cultures.

Dear friends, we still have work to do in our lives, in the Church and in society. As we mark Black History Month, I invite you to reflect on the lessons from the life and ministry of Father Tolton. As we reflect on his life and ministry, let us also ask ourselves if our choices, attitudes and orientation are contributing to the disease of racism.

Finally, I invite you to pray for an end to racism, for vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life, and for families.


Father Tochi Iwuji is the director of the diocesan Office for Black Catholics and pastor of Holy Rosary, Richmond.

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