On the Life of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton
Dear brothers and sisters,
Saint Paul says to us today, “Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1). Many of you are aware that the name of my web site and blog – Servant and Steward – comes from this verse, but what does it mean?
To speak of himself as a “servant of Christ” is somewhat obvious; it means that Paul’s life is no longer his own, but is now directed to the will of Jesus Christ. To understand Saint Paul as a servant is easy enough, but what of a steward?
Many of us are perhaps best familiar with the role of a steward through J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. A steward governs in the absence of a king. The kingdom he governs is not his own; he is but a caretaker until the king returns. His authority is not own, but comes from the express will of the king. So it is with Paul; he is a “steward of the mysteries of God.”
These are no simple mysteries with which he is entrusted. He is no Poirot, Sherlock or Matlock seeking to answer a difficult question. These mysteries he holds are far more profound and important. When he called them “mysteries” he used a Greek word coming from the root muo, meaning “to close the mouth.” These mysteries, when understood for what they are, leave one filled with love, wonder and awe and leave one all but speechless before such tremendous love given so freely to us.
When writing in Latin, Tertullian used the word sacramentum to refer to these mysteries. It was a word borrowed from the legions of Rome which referred to the oath taken by the legionaries and the tattoo they received. In taking the oath, a man gave his life to the Empire and to the emperor and was marked by his oath. So it with us and the sacraments – the mysteries – of God.
In the sacraments we stand in awe of the divine life we receive through them and belong to Christ. Through the sacraments we share in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ; through them we are bound to God.
Saint Paul, then, is a steward of the sacraments of Christ, which he entrusted to the Church to give us his divine life. Paul was “found trustworthy” in his office and is thus a model for every priest because every priest is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (I Corinthians 4:2).
Not too far from here, a young man of the nineteenth century sought to be just such a servant and steward as a missionary to the peoples of Africa; instead, he was sent back to these United States of America. Recently, his cause was formally introduced for beatification and canonization; his name is Father Augustus John Tolton.
His was a life seemingly marked by opposition wherever he turned, save for a few moments of calm. Even so, in Father Tolton we find a clear sign of hope and of universal brotherhood; indeed, we see in him one who knew the truth of the Psalmist’s words: “With God is my safety and glory, he is the rock of my strength; my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O my people! Pour out your hearts before him” (Psalm 62:8-9).
This servant of God was born April 1, 1854 in Ralls County, Missouri to faithful Catholic parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton. Peter was a slave on the Hager farm and Martha was a slave on the Elliot farm near Brush Creek, Missouri.
His father fled the farm to St. Louis, which at the time was a divided city, to join the Union Army. Just a short time later he died of dysentery; Martha would not learn of his death until after the Civil War ended. His “life was sad, except that he and his wife passed a love of God and religion on to the next generation” (Father Roy Bauer, The Life of Augustine Tolton, Part Six). What greater gift can a parent leave behind?
In 1862, Martha heard talk of slave traders in the area looking for children. Her own children all were young: Charley was eight; Augustus was seven; and Anne was twenty months. Having herself been separated from her parents when she was sixteen, she feared for her children and fled to Quincy, Illinois forty-one miles away.
When they finally arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, they encountered a group of Confederate soldiers who were about to take them into custody when they were saved by a group of Union soldiers; as Providence would have it, they were at that moment in a part of Hannibal under Union control.
The Union soldiers helped them into an old boat and sent them across the Mississippi River, while a Confederate soldier fired shots after them. When at last they reached the shore of Quincy, they found refuge with Mrs. Mary Ann Davis, who arranged for Martha, Charles and Augustus to work in the Harris tobacco factory.
In 1865, Augustus enrolled in St. Boniface school with the permission of the Pastor. His enrollment led many parents to threaten to remove their children from the school, to leave the parish, and even to call for the removal of their pastor.
Adults can sometimes understand ignorance, but a ten year old child cannot. Augustine’s school life was intolerable. The children tormented him, taunted him because he could not read, mimicked his accent, called him insulting names until he broke out in uncontrollable sobs (Ibid., Part Six).
Just one month after he enrolled, young Augustus withdrew from school.
Hearing of his troubles, Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Lawrence Parish (it would later become St. Peter Parish, where Msgr. Enlow is now Pastor) insisted that Augustus study in a Catholic school. He would personally see that young Gus would have no trouble in his school. Years later, Augustus recalled, “As long as I was in that school, I was safe. Everyone was kind to me” (Ibid, Part Eight).
Gus served Mass each morning before going to work and became close with two priests who both thought he might have a priestly vocation. They wrote letter after letter to seminaries and religious Orders throughout the country seeking one that would accept him; time and time again, they were told, “We are not ready for a Negro student.”
So great was his desire to serve the Lord and to bring the Gospel to others, that in 1878 Gus, with the help of a priest and a nun, opened St. Joseph School of Black Children in Quincy, the first of its kind in the city. Even here he was met with opposition, when non-Catholic blacks publicly refused to send their children to his school.
One day a long-awaited letter arrived for Gus: he had been accepted to the seminary for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Those who were ordained from this seminary knew they would be sent to mission territories throughout the world, and they would have no choice as to where they would be sent. Nevertheless, Gus was filled with great joy that day. He arrived in the Eternal City on March 10, 1880, where he was nicknamed, “Gus from the U.S.”
He was ordained a deacon on November 8, 1885; he later said of his diaconal ordination: “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains – in Africa” (Ibid., Part Fifteen).
When he learned of the date of his ordination – April 24, 1886 (Holy Saturday) in the Lateran Basilica - he wrote to a priest in Quincy, saying, “My seminary studies are about over now, and I will go on to Africa right after my ordination in April” (Ibid., Part Sisteen). Or so he thought.
The day before he was ordained a priest, Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni told Deacon Tolton that it was decided the night before that he would be sent Africa, as was the plan all along; however, Cardinal Simeoni had over-ruled the committee. He said to him, “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now” (Ibid., Part Seventeen). But there was yet more: he was to be sent back to his home Diocese and to the city of Quincy.
It was shocking news to the ordinand, but he had already promised his obedience. The difficulties of his childhood and early adulthood in the United States must surely have come to him, but he trusted in the Lord and remembered his promise, “I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).
He arrived in Quincy in July of 1886 and was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, which had been established as a parish for Blacks. He received an enthusiastic welcome in the Gem City and was admired by all. They found in him a “rich and full voice which falls pleasantly on the ears” and saw the “whole-hearted earnestness” with which he went about his ministry (The Quincy Journal, July 26, 1886).
His ministry met with some success, but affairs turned for the worse when Father Michael Weiss was appointed Pastor of St. Boniface Parish, just one block from St. Joseph’s. St. Boniface Parish was in debt and had given much to St. Joseph’s Parish. Many of Fr. Weiss’ parishioners attended Fr. Tolton’s Masses and contributed to his parish. Fr. Weiss, the local Dean, insisted Fr. Tolton no longer minister to whites and repeatedly made it clear that contributions from whites belonged to white parishes. This was the first time Fr. Tolton experienced prejudice from a priest, and it devastated him.
When he could take no more, Father Tolton wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the faith on July 12, 1889 in these words:
There is a certain German priest here who is jealous and contemptuous. He
abuses me in many ways and he has told the bishop to send me out of this place.
I will gladly leave here just to be away from this priest. I appealed to Bishop
[James] Ryan and he also advises me to go elsewhere (In Ibid., Part
Archbishop Patrick Feehan told him he would be welcome in Chicago, so he wrote again to the Congregation on September 4, 1889: “I beg you to give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest.” The reply came on December 7, 1889: “If the two bishops concur in giving their approval, go at once” (Bauer, Part Twenty-four)!
He left for Chicago on December 19, 1889, with nineteen of his converts and took up the pastorate of St. Monica’s chapel, where he was entrusted with the pastoral care of all of Chicago’s black Catholics. After he left Quincy, St. Joseph Parish closed for good.
From the beginning, his “ardent charity and self-denying zeal” were evident to all. Within two years he began construction on a new church – that was never completed – and ministered to some six hundred black Catholics (Mary Elmore in Ibid., Part Twenty-seven).
Having spent himself in the service of the Church, he died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897; he was forty-three years of age. St. Monica’s became a mission and it took another two years for a full-time pastor to be assigned to it. St. Monica’s closed for good in 1924.
His is a life of deep faith and of perseverance. In the midst of his troubles with Fr. Weiss, Fr. Tolton began speaking across the country to raise money for his parish. In one of his speeches, he spoke these words:
I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It
was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight… It was
the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors.
It was through the direction of a Sister … that I learned to interpret the Ten
Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of
truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for
our rights because we are Black. She had colored saints – Augustine, Benedict
the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our
people (Ibid., Part Twenty-three).
Despite the opposition he faced, he never lost his love of the Church or of the priesthood.
In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel. “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful" (Ibid., Part Twenty-nine)! The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model for us all.
He allowed the love of the Lord to motivate his life and to this love he dedicated himself. His fidelity to the Church is a clear proclamation of the Gospel, and an invitation for all people to enter in and know the love of the Lord. Father Tolton remained faithful in his duties as a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God.
May his example and intercession raise up many more such priests in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a priest to administer the mysteries of God. Amen!