Monday, April 18, 2011

First African American Roman Catholic Priest

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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Women Officers in the Confederate Army

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lucy Mina Otey, a sixty year old widow, organized five hundred women of Lynchburg, Virginia into the Ladies’ Relief Society. The duties of the members of the Society included preparing and delivering food to the wounded in hospitals, making bandages, mending clothes and assisting surgeons in any way possible. Women would write letters for soldiers and keep patients comfortable. One morning when arriving at a hospital, Mina Otey was denied access by order of Dr. W.O. Owen, the head of Lynchburg military hospitals. Dr. Owen ordered the removal of Otey and all women from the hospitals stating, “no more women or flies are to be admitted.”

Otey immediately traveled to Richmond to talk to President Jefferson Davis to get his personal permission to found her own hospital, run entirely by female nurses. Davis agreed. Corruption and mismanagement became a frequent issue in Confederate hospitals. The Confederate government eventually ordered the shutdown of all medical institutions that were not under direct government control. If a hospital was not headed by a commissioned officer, who was least a captain, then patients had to be moved. Because of the excellence of her hospital and her service to the Confederacy, Mrs. Otey was named a Captain in the Confederate Army by President Jefferson Davis. Only one other woman received a commission in the Confederate Army. This other woman was Sallie Tompkins, who ran a hospital in Richmond, Virginia.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.