Growing up as a suburban kid from California, I didn’t know much about Black history. I got a little in social studies and history class. We received a glimpse in our English classes. But there was so much I wish I had learned about a culture that was so different from my own.
In some ways, I’m making up for all the things I didn’t know now that I live on the South Side of Chicago. For example, Ida B. Wells, who helped found the NAACP and was a top-notch investigative reporter, lived a few blocks from the public pool where I swim weekly. Down the street from the public pool would have been where Carter G. Woodson announced the creation of Negro History Week, which later evolved into Black History Month. And there is too much to mention about jazz and blues music that I have only just begun to appreciate.
This pocket of Chicago holds history on almost every street corner if you look hard enough. In the shadows of all this richness is where Venerable Father Augustus Tolton ministered to the Black community in Chicago — he is one of six Black Catholics whose causes are moving toward sainthood. In a city known for racial segregation, having Father Tolton’s legacy connects the Bronzeville neighborhood in honest ways.
He was born an enslaved person to his mother, Martha Jane, in Missouri on April 1, 1854. His mother escaped slavery with her three children — Augustus, Charles, and Anne — running almost 20 miles through prairie and woods until she reached the Mississippi River. Union soldiers helped Martha find a rowboat so she could cross the river to safety. The family was directed to Quincy, Illinois, where they settled.
Young Augustus began working at a tobacco factory as a 9-year-old. He tried to attend the local Catholic school at the age of 11, but it was a short stint at St. Boniface School because white parents and parishioners were upset by his attendance.
I think about what Augustus endured before he was old enough for middle school: he had to run for his life as a young boy, and then endure racism from adults who felt threatened by his presence. But his mother encouraged him in his prayer life, and that connection to God changed him. Those close to him witnessed great faith, and an even greater desire to serve a community that at times was unkind to him and other Black people.
Augustus began to teach religion classes to Black children in Quincy, and many priests and nuns whom he knew helped him prepare for seminary. But he was denied entry into every seminary in the U.S. because other candidates for priesthood were not ready for an African American to study among them. He eventually went on to attend seminary in Rome, and was ordained a priest in 1866 at the age of 31. He believed he would minister in Africa, but was sent back to his hometown of Quincy.
Father Tolton later ended up on the South Side of Chicago, where he began gathering a community in the basement of St. Mary’s Parish. Twenty people quickly grew to 200 as he raised money to build a new church building: St. Monica Parish, which would be first Black Catholic parish west of Baltimore.
As the church building and the parish community at St. Monica’s grew, it became clear that Father Tolton’s tireless work was taking a toll on his health. He died on July 9, 1897 after he returned to Chicago from a retreat. After arriving by train, the temperature in the city was 105 degrees — he began walking several miles back to his home in the heat, but collapsed.
Throughout his life, one thing led him forward: he followed God’s voice. That faithfulness led him over many obstacles. There were no African American priests who had gone before him, so he did not have a road map for what his life and ministry could look like. Father Tolton persisted. Or rather maybe it’s more accurate to say that he clung to the belief that God would never give up on him.
“It was said that I would be the only priest of my race in America and would not likely succeed,” he wrote. But he had a quiet perseverance and a gentleness that won people over — there is no record of him ever getting angry.
As a young Catholic and even as a seminarian, Father Tolton may have been the only Black person many people knew. Sometimes I wonder if there were times he wanted to say an unkind word or raise his voice after facing his own injustices or witnessing suffering in his community.
Perhaps it was relationships with white and Black Catholics alike that kept Father Tolton going. Some white people around him advocated for him and worked to teach him and offer resources — from helping him learn how to read to growing in fluency in another language.
The longer I sit with Father Tolton’s story, the more I can see how he can inspire me in the work of racial justice. His life reflects radical trust in God’s guidance.
The area where Father Tolton collapsed in the heat is near the shore of Lake Michigan. Today, that area is a mix of boat slips and recreation areas with trees and grass. When I visit that shoreline, I sometimes imagine him standing near the water’s edge and taking a breath. Maybe the breath I imagine is one of cleansing — like one after a hard day’s work. Maybe it was a tired gasp because the exhaustion was too much. Or maybe it was simply an act of breathing, simple sustenance for a long journey.