01 April 2014

On this 160th birthday: Father Tolton and Saints Augustine and Monica

Father Augustus Tolton, late 1890s
On the first day of April in the year 1854, Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton celebrated the birth of their second son, Augustus, who, later in his life, became the first black priest in the United States of America. Today, one hundred and sixty years later, his cause for beatification and canonization is underway.

After his escape from slavery, Father Tolton grew up in my beloved hometown of Quincy, Illinois. He prepared for the priesthood at the college of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. He was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886 in the Basilica of St. John Lateran and celebrated his first Mass the next day in the Basilica of St. Peter.

Following his ordination, Father Tolton said he “celebrated mass for four weeks in St. Augustine’s, Rome, where princes and potentates worship,” a church which I walk by several times each week (Quoted by The Washington Post, in Atlanta Constitution, January 7, 1889). Here in Rome, not only do I walk the streets on which the ancient martyrs walked, but also Father Gus. It's a rather humbling thought.

For a moment I wondered he might daily offer the Mass in la chiesa di Sant'Agostino, but then I remembered one of Father Tolton's most powerful quotes (emphasis mine):

The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery – that of the mind and that of the body.  She endeavors to free us of both. 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.  I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter's Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word.  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 of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, 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.

Of course he desired to celebrate each day in this church!

I have no way of knowing at which altar he would have offered the Holy Mass, but I thought today I would share with you a few pictures taken in this church.

The piazza in front of the church has in recent years become a sort of car park:

The church is perhaps most famous as the place in which the mortal remains of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, are enshrined:

Her present sarcophagus.
Her previous sarcophagus.
The Church also houses a beautiful statue of the Madonna and Child, called Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Childbirth), which is greatly revered by the Romans:

The principle altar in the church is also an impressive work of art:

 It, too, contains a beautiful image of the Madonna and Child:

The dome above the altar depicts Christ the Lord with the Twelve Apostles:

The ceiling above the aisles likewise depict the celestial court:

The rest of the church is filled with many beautiful works of art and quiet places to pray, and even includes an image of the Holy Face:

Please, if you happen to be in the Gem City today, stop by Father Tolton’s grave and pray the prayer for his cause:

O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time. We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.  

Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.

Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.


While you are at his grave, please also pray for me. Father Gus, pray for us!


  1. I'll be in Quincy on Saturday and will be sure to stop by his grave!

  2. Reading life giving articles like yours, I feel joyful and have no shame as One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church cradle Catholic baptized Christian woman!

    Father Augustine "Augustus" Tolton, pray for Cathedral Catholic High School 5555 Del Mar Heights Road San Diego will be going to Sacramento, California on December 16, 2016 to play football for the State Championship competing with fellow Catholic powerhouse Saint Mary's of Stockton. We ask for Saint "Gus" to intercede on behalf of the athletes of both teams that all walk in good health and in better form in holiness than before they crossed the field. Let all walk off the field.

    God's will be done and may the peace of Christ descend on all souls after the State Championship.

    It is only a matter of time when Father Gus becomes a saint!

    The miraculous win will be evidence!