February 26, 2010
America's First Black Priest: Father Gus (Part One)
On 20th January 2009 Barack Obama was sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States of America... The election of an African-American to the highest political position in the land, if not the world, is the pinnacle of the story of a people that had been in slavery less than one-hundred and fifty years before and could be treated as second-class citizens only 41 years before. The barriers broken by the former Senator for Illinois are immense but he is not the first ground breaking African-American to rise to prominence from the Prairie State. In 1886, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a young man who had been born a slave was ordained a priest. His name was Augustine Tolton and he was the first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States.
(From: Celebrating Priesthood - Father Augustine Tolton)
By Gerry Curran
On a clear night in 1862, a 29-year-old slave woman with her two young sons and 20-month-old daughter, bolted the Stephen Elliot plantation in Brush Creek, Missouri, where she’d lived since 1849. Her destination for now was Hannibal, about five miles distance. From there, in a leaky rowboat, with bullets whizzing overhead from Confederate soldiers, she frantically rowed across the great Mississippi River to Illinois—a free state. For that slave woman, Martha Jane Tolton, it would mean freedom but for one of her sons, Augustine, it would mean even more. He would become, despite a maze of major obstacles, the first pure-blooded black Roman Catholic priest in the U.S.
Born in Kentucky, Martha Jane Chisley was already a second-generation Catholic, being baptized in infancy as was the custom of slave-holding Catholics. She would be part of a human dowry upon the wedding of Susan Mannings to Stephen Elliot. Immediately following the reception, the couple, with slaves in tow, headed for their new home, a farm in Missouri, also a slave state. Adjoining the Elliot farm was one owned by the Hager family, also Catholic. It was here Martha Jane met another slave, Peter Paul Tolton, who worked in the plantation’s distillery. A relationship developed and eventually they received permission from the Hager and Eliot families to marry in the Church.
In the spring 1851, Peter and Martha Jane were married by Father John O’Sullivan at Saint Peter’s Church in Brush Creek. In consenting to the marriage, it was agreed that the couple would live on the Eliot plantation but Peter would remain the property of the Hagers. In addition, any children born of this union would become property of the Elliots. From the marriage came Charley in 1853, Augustine, 1854, and Anne, 1859.
Though Peter Tolton had been a slave of the Hagers since he was a child, he still desired his freedom. Following the federal surrender of Fort Sumter in 1861, he escaped and enlisted in the Union army. Martha Jane understood. A year later, she and her children made their own escape.
The little quartet eventually made it to Quincy, Illinois, a town about 20 miles north of where they landed. It had a population of about 14,000, of which about 300 were black. Martha Jane made arrangements to stay with another black woman, a Mrs. Davis, and found a job at the Harris Tobacco factory at Fifth and Ohio Streets [also referenced as the Wellman and Dwire Tobacco Company]. Her two sons were hired as "stemmers," preparing the tobacco by trimming stems. They worked 10-hour days, six days a week for 50¢ per week.
Mother Tolton, as she came to be known, attended the local Catholic church, Saint Boniface. The pastor was Father Herman Schaeffermeyer. Though the 2,000-member parish was predominantly German, the Toltons were, for the most part, accepted or at the very least, tolerated. The parish school was yet untested. Mass was celebrated in Latin but the epistles, gospel and sermon in German and then translated into English by Fr. Schaeffermeyer. Young Augustine would learn the German language through this process.
During the winter months the tobacco factory was closed, and in 1865, Augustine and Anne became the first black children enrolled at St. Boniface School. When parishioners heard of it many threatened to withdraw their support of the church. Not surprisingly, the Tolton children endured hostility from other students as well. Staying only a month, Mother Tolton removed them from St. Boniface School.
Augustine continued to work at the tobacco factory, eventually working his way into the grading and sorting room. The work was easier and his pay was raised to $3 a week. Despite his earlier moral lapse in not standing up to his parishioners, Fr. Schaeffermeyer became a life-long friend of the Toltons.
In the winter of 1868, Mother Tolton enrolled her children in an all-black school, later known as Lincoln School, a state-maintained institution of dubious academic quality. Even in a school surrounded by his own, he was harassed and taunted, mainly because of his gawkiness and lack of a father. (Peter Paul Tolton had died of dysentery in a St. Louis hospital during the war. It is not known whether he ever saw combat.) Young Augustine, 14, would stay with it, and eventually won over his tormentors. He became one of the school’s best students.
Augustine met another person, one of many in his life, who was interested in his future: Father Peter McGirr of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy. Fr. McGirr, from Ulster in Northern Ireland, went on a sick call to Mrs. Davis’ house, where the Toltons were still staying in 1868. After speaking with Augustine, Fr. McGirr arranged to have him attend St. Peter’s School. When white parishioners complained to Fr. McGirr about a child attending St. Peter’s, he would either ignore them or lecture them on the equality of all people. Augustine never had any problems with any of the students. Augustine learned his Latin and became an altar boy. At the same time Mother Tolton moved to a brick shed behind a livery stable, close to St. Peter’s church and school. Though a bright student at 16, he was still woefully behind in his studies. Consequently, he received special before- and after-class tutoring from the nuns. He graduated with distinction from St. Peter’s in 1872, at the age of 18.
Now the question was, what was he to do with the education? Fr. McGirr asked Augustine if he ever thought of becoming a priest, to which the young man responded very positively. He applied at Saint Francis Monastery in Teutopolis, Illinois. Their reply: he did not qualify. So Augustine headed back to the tobacco factory where he was now making cigars at $9 per week and also serving as the church’s custodian.
St. Boniface had a new pastor, Father Francis Ostrop and was assisted by Father Theodore Wegmann. Fr. Ostrop set up a course of study for Augustine patterned after that at St. Francis Solanus College in Quincy. Fr. Wegmann would teach the course to Augustine. Meanwhile, over at St. Peter’s, Fr. McGirr found a reply from the local bishop to an earlier letter regarding Augustine. Basically, the letter said “Find a seminary which will accept a Negro candidate. The diocese will assume the expenses.” Unfortunately, the point was moot, as the three priests had written every seminary in the U.S., all of which responded “We are not ready to accept a Negro as a candidate for the seminary.” Augustine, or ‘Gus’ as he was now known, was 20 and in his twelfth year of employment at the tobacco factory.
An unexpected transfer of Fr. Wegmann found Gus in northeastern Missouri studying under a priest friend of Fr. McGirr’s. It turned out an utterly disastrous year with a well-meaning but alcoholic priest for a tutor and Gus working in a saloon, cleaning up the place after closing. So it was back to Quincy.
Upon his return to Quincy, Gus started working at the J.L. Kreitz Saddle factory in Quincy making saddles and horse collars. He also took back his job as church custodian. Fr. Ostrop found another tutor for him in the chaplain at the local Catholic hospital. After several months, Gus started a new job making $12 a week at Durhold and Company, a soda firm. Another bit of good fortune occurred: St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy College) accepted Gus, who would start in the fall of 1878. In addition, he had three priests to tutor him. One of them, Father Michael Richardt, would be another pivotal person to his future.
Concerned about the lack of religious education among his own people, Gus took on the unofficial role of lay minister at St. Boniface. He discovered several years earlier that St. Boniface had purchased a Lutheran church and used it for a school. After St. Boniface built a new school, the former Protestant church lay vacant. Gus received permission from the pastor of St. Boniface to establish a Sunday school for children in the vacant church. With the assistance of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a day school was also started. Over time, it grew to become St. Joseph parish.
Still, Gus, now 25, was no closer to his goal of entering a seminary than five years earlier. A plea to the newly-founded Josephite Fathers in England, whose ministry was directed at American ex-slaves, eventually proved a dead end. He began pestering his mentors on the subject. Following a long talk with Fr. McGirr, Gus was sadly reminded of the situation for blacks in 1879 America. However, the discussion did end on a positive note. Fr. McGirr told him of the local bishop’s upcoming trip to Rome the following week and the bishop would plead Gus’s case to the Cardinal Prefect of the Propaganda College. Gus’s spirits soared.
After a seemingly interminable amount of time, Fr. Richardt showed Gus a letter received from the local bishop. Though the bishop tried his best, the letter said, he was unable to obtain admission for Gus to the Propaganda College. The letter added that he should wait until the Josephite Fathers opened a seminary in the U.S. Knowing that to be a pipe dream, Fr. Richardt began his reserve plan and appealed directly to the superior general of the Franciscan order in Rome. The Cardinal Prefect—who’d just turned down the bishop’s plea—was also a personal friend of the superior general.
Fr. Richardt mailed the superior general a long, well-crafted letter to plead Gus’s case. For Gus, the time was agony. For about two months, he just moped along, until one day he was notified of his acceptance for priestly preparation at the Propaganda College in Rome.
On Sunday, February 15, 1880, with a sizable crowd at the Quincy station to see him off, Gus boarded the train that took him to Hoboken, N.J. From there he would board the Der Westlicher for a 12-day voyage to Le Havre, and then, by train, with various European layovers, to Rome. He arrived in the Eternal City on Wednesday, March 10, 1880.
Within nine days, Gus and his 70 or so fellow seminarians were invested in the uniform of the Collegium: A black soutane with red sash and black biretta with a red tassel. He found his classmates to be from all corners of the globe. The discrimination and prejudice he experienced in the U.S. was not found in the Collegium. Though occasionally lonely, he felt very comfortable in his new situation. Later, as Father Tolton, he would recall that the happiest times of his life were as a seminarian. Very soon, his fellow seminarians addressed him as Gus or ‘Gus from the U.S.’ and he adjusted well to seminary life. During this time he also mastered the accordion and would play old Negro spirituals for his classmates. On non-school days he would wander around Rome and sketch some of the Eternal City’s more than 600 churches.
In spring 1886, Gus’s seminary days were coming to an end. He’d passed all the requisite courses and taken all the oaths for each of his six years of study. All that remained was ordination,
The day before his ordination, he tried to find out his first assignment. Anyone who knew him, from the clergy in Quincy to his seminary classmates and instructors at the Collegium, assumed he would be sent to Africa as a missionary. This was not to be. To everyone’s surprise, he was being sent back to Quincy. Alhough an assignments committee had agreed that Augustine Tolton would go to Africa, the prefect of the Collegium, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni, overruled them and said America didn’t have any black priests, though they were needed — but Americans will see one now.
NEXT: Father Tolton arrives in Chicago
Gerry Curran is a Southern California based writer who was born in Chicago and raised on the South Side. His work has appeared in Nostalgia Digest. Gerry served in the Marine Corps, and is now happily retired with his wife, Vicki. He spends a lot of time studying Chicago's history.
They Called Him Father Gus
Photo Credit: Augustine Tolton (Wikipedia)