Father Augustus Tolton is regarded as the first Roman Catholic priest of purely African descent in the United States. Both of Tolton’s parents were brought to America from Africa. Born in 1854 near Hannibal, Missouri, Tolton and his entire family were baptized as Roman Catholics at the behest of their master, Stephen Elliott.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Tolton’s father ran away and joined the Union army, later dying in a St. Louis hospital of dysentery. Tolton’s mother took her three small children and ran away from her master, dodging Confederate bounty hunters, finally reaching safety in Quincy, Illinois.
Tolton’s religious vocation became apparent as he matured and a number of priests attempted to get Tolton accepted in a seminary. No Catholic seminary in the United States was willing to accept a black seminarian. Eventually, Augustus Tolton was accepted to a seminary in Rome. At the age of 26 Augustus Tolton traveled to Italy to begin his studies. Six years later on April 24, 1886, he was ordained a priest at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.
Most of Father Tolton’s teachers in the seminary felt that he would never be able to minister in the United States given the widespread climate of racism and anti-Catholicism existing in the country. Father Tolton expected to be sent to Africa and was surprised when Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni insisted that he return to Illinois, saying, “America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.”
Father Tolton said his first Mass in America on July 7, 1886.
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