You might have missed a recent Chicago Tribune article on Father Augustus Tolton, who took a big step forward towards canonization this year. Father Tolton remains a powerful figure for many black American Catholics, but his name is not widely known, a regretful fact here in Chicago, where he left a lasting legacy. His story is worth knowing because it demonstrates that while some of the individuals who form the Church can fail, there are many others who make it a force for good and help to redeem it.
Born a slave in 1854 to a Catholic family in Missouri, Tolton’s family escaped to Quincy, Illinois. Growing up in Quincy, he dealt with discrimination, even when he decided to join the priesthood. Denied entry to American seminaries due to his skin color, Tolton pushed on, traveling to Rome for his studies. Ordained and sent back to Illinois (where racist persecution continued), he’d make his way to Chicago in 1889 and would establish the city’s first parish for the then marginalized black community. In July 1887, a few short years after the parish opened, Fr. Tolton passed out from a heatstroke and died at the age of 43.
Tolton’s legacy has not been overlooked in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where his work continues in Catholic Charities’ Father Augustus Tolton Peace Center. There, aid workers, counselors, and volunteers heal wounds, help the needy, and assist those struggling through violence, poverty, and other ailments. Their work shows the power for social justice and equality in Catholicism, work that has been ongoing in some form for centuries and that we sometimes lose sight of. Tolton would have been proud that his work of serving the marginalized continues in Chicago and we should be proud to claim his legacy.
Augustus Tolton was born as someone’s property and had his faith chosen by those who claimed ownership of him. There were Catholic lay people and priests who showed him nothing but contempt and hate, contradicting their own morals and values. Yet, Tolton kept his faith and chose to dedicate himself to the Church, going on to improve the lives of many throughout his lifetime, with the support of others in his community and beyond. Tolton shows that while the Church can inflict harm when corrupted by those who ignore its teachings, it can be used for immense good by those who honor its true principles.
Dan Snow works in corporate communications and has been a parishioner at St. Juliana for 13 years.