John Augustus Tolton was born a slave in Brush Creek, MO. His mother led the family across the Mississippi River to freedom in Quincy, IL in 1862. Eight year old John offered to work for Fr. Peter McGirr for food. Father gave him a meal and asked him if he wanted to go to St. Peter Catholic School. Young John ex-celled in school. He was baptized soon afterward and studied with Fr. McGirr to make his Holy Communion. After serving a summer as Altar Boy for the 5 a.m. Mass, Fr. McGirr asked young John if he would like to become a priest—the first African-American priest ordained for service in the United States. Eager to embark on the 12 years of difficult study, the two prayed for his success.
After high school John graduated from Quincy College. Denied entry to an American Catholic seminary, Fr. McGirr and a group of Franciscans assisted with the arrangements for John to study in Rome. At age 32, John Augustine Tolton was ordained a Catholic priest by Lucino Cardinal Parochi, April 24, 1886.
Fr. Tolton returned to the U.S. July 6, 1886 to a hero’s welcome and offered his first Mass on American soil at St. Benedict the Moor Parish, New York City. Eleven days later his train pulled into Quincy, a band played “Holy God” as the crowd cheered.
On July 25, 1886, Fr. Tolton was formally installed pastor of the Negro Church of St. Joseph in Quincy, and began his pastoral ministry.
The Quincy Journal had high praise for Fr. Tolton, citing his “fine educational training,” “wholehearted earnestness,” and “rich voice which falls pleasantly on the ear.”
When African American Catholics began arriving in Chicago during the Civil War, they formed the St. Augustine Society to feed the poor, visit the sick and bury the dead. As their numbers and reputation grew they desired to form a congregation of their own. In 1889 they requested Bishop Foley to secure Fr. Tolton as their spiritual director. He arrived there on December 19, 1889 and began ministry, including the building of St. Monica Parish.
Fr. Augustus Tolton’s cause for sainthood is being introduced to the Vatican by the Archdiocese of Chicago.