Father Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest

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Father Augustine Tolton First Black Priest

Born a slave, condemned to a lifetime of frustration and failure, and even in death denied a burial spot all of his own -- this was the story of Augustine Tolton, a native of Ralls County and the first full blooded Negro Catholic priest in the United States.

It was years after his death before this humble man was accorded the respect that was denied him in life. He was buried in a plot below the level of other graves in St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill., so that eventually another priest’s coffin could be placed above his. And his name is engraved on the back side of the stone that bears the name of one of his white colleagues. But time has brought him into his own, and the honor of having his remains has become a matter of some dispute.

Father Landry Genosky, O.F.M., a professor at Quincy College, has become an acknowledged authority on Father Tolton’s life. Recently there have been moves made in the Springfield, Ill., diocese, designed to have the Negro priest’s body exhumed and moved to Springfield. “The people there,” Father Landry said, “seem to think that because of the connection of Lincoln, the emancipator, and Springfield this should be done.’ But he emphasized that he felt the body should, and will remain in Quincy, where the priest spent most of his life, and where his vocation to the priest­hood was nurtured.

Augustine Tolton was born April 1, 1854, in the Brush Creek Community, about 12 miles southeast of Monroe City. His parents, Peter Paul and Martha Tolton, were slaves belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Elliott. Martha was Mrs. Elliott’s (Savilla) personal slave, having been brought from Kentucky when the couple mi­grated to Missouri.

Many descendants and relatives of the Elliotts still live in this area, among them Mrs. Savilla Maddox, granddaughter and namesake of Mrs. Elliott. Also related, though more distantly, is Mrs. Alma Lindhorst. She grew up on the Elliott farm where Father Tolton was born, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Manning Thompson. Mrs. Lindhorst can recall playing as a child on the foundation ruins of the cabin where the Toltons lived.

Augustine was baptised in St. Peter’s Church at Brush Creek with Mrs. Elliott as his godmother. Father John O’Sullivan performed the ceremony. Mrs. Lindhorst recalls that Mrs. Elliott gave the small boy and his brother, two years his senior, religious instruc­tions.

Life changed dramatically for the Negro boy when he was seven years old. Father Landry tells two versions of the changes that took place for the Toltons when the Civil War broke out. One version comes from “west of the Mississippi,” chiefly from people living in the Monroe City area, while the other version is told by Quincy residents. The main facts are the same, but the human interest element differs dramatically.

The story, as told by local people, including Mrs. Lindhorst, says that the Toltons were freed by their masters, and the father left for St. Louis to join the Union Army. There he died of dysentery.

Martha, with her nine and seven year old sons and a 20 month old daughter, fled to Hannibal, where she narrowly escaped being taken as “Contraband.” According to this story, she was assisted by a white neighbor, Constable Lee Hardy, in her flight. Finding an old boat the frightened woman rowed across the Mississippi and practically ran the 21 miles to Quincy which was free territory.

The Quincy version of Mrs. Tolton’s escape claims that the slaves were not freed, but that they escaped their masters. Mrs. Lindhorst doubts the veracity of the story, as she does one which some people tell of the Elliott’s cruelty to their slaves. One story writ­ten of the priest’s life tells how he watched his mother being beaten, and to this Mrs. Lindhorst says, “Non­sense. Cousin Savilla was known everywhere for her kindness, and I know of no one who remembers such a story.”

Mrs. Maddox agreed with Mrs. Lindhorst, recalling that her grand­mother was one of the gentlest persons she had ever known.

Augustine went to work in Quincy when just seven years old. Along with his mother and older brother, he found employment in a tobacco factory. Later he was to work in a saddlery, as custodian of St. Peters Church, and as a factory hand.

He also started formal education, attending the segregated Lincoln Public School for three months. Moving to St. Boniface Parochial School must have given him an indication of the problems that lay ahead,. for prejudice caused him to be taken out of this school before one term was up. But then Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St Lawrence Church, later to be changed to St. Peters, admitted all the Tolton children to his school. There the young Negro boy graduated with distinction and was confirmed.

For some time Augustine was tutored privately by Quincy priests, who sensed the beginning of vocation. The young man assisted the priests in the spiritual care of Quincy’s Negro Catholics, and expressed a desire to become a priest. But his efforts to enter a seminary were thwarted by the same old enemy, prejudice. He was even denied entry into a seminary whose white priests were being trained to serve the American Negro.

Ironically, the prejudice that prevented this brilliant young man from studying for the priesthood in his own land was the cause of his being sent to the foremost college of the Catholic Church. Finding that he could not pursue his studies here, some of his priest benefactors found channels through which he might be sent to the College of Sacred Propaganda at Rome.

There, after six years, of study, Father Augustine Tolton was ordained a Catholic priest (1886). Receiving his priesthood from Cardinal Parocchi in St. John Lateran in Rome, the young prelate was informed that his mission was to be the Negroes of the United States.

Returning to Quincy, Father Tolton celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Boniface where he had served as an altar boy years before. He was appointed pastor of St. Joseph Negro Church and soon became quite well known in Quincy for his excellent sermons, his splendid education, and his eloquent voice.

But although the young priest succeeded in attracting many whites as well as his own people to his services, the ugly face of prejudice soon appeared again. The large number of people who sought his classes of inquiry, the crowded Sunday Masses, the coming together of people of both races in his church brought down on him not only the jealously and scorn of some white priests, but also the envy of some Protestant Negro ministers.

The combination was too much. He bowed to prejudice and left Quincy, accepting an invitation to found a Negro church in Chicago.

He began his ministry there in the basement of “Old St. Mary’s,” while laboriously building up a parish among the entire Negro community. Four years after his arrival there, Mrs. Anna O’Neil donated $10,000 for the building of a Negro church, which was to be named St. Monica’s.

Success of a sort appeared to be within the reach of this young man, only 43 years old, after a lifetime of frustration caused exclusively by the color of his skin. He had been invited to preach in the Cathedral of Baltimore and had been sought by Bishops and Cardinals who wanted him to establish Negro churches in their dioceses.

But on July, 1897 with Chicago in the grip of an intense heat wave, Father Token suffered a heat stroke. His name appeared in Chicago papers among lists of those thus struck down, although there were a number of stories that circulated about his death. It was said that he was killed by Chicago thugs and that he died of tuberculosis, but newspaper accounts dispute these stories.

Father Tolton’s remains were brought back to Quincy as he had requested. He is buried there in a circular plot in the center of St. Peters Cemetery.

Why was his coffin placed so deep in the ground that another priest, one who died early in the 1900’s could be buried above him? Did the prejudice that plagued him in life follow him even in death? Father Landry thinks so. Considering the racial atmosphere of the country in 1897, he explained, it is remarkable that Father Tolton was allowed a burial spot in a white cemetery at all. Further service to prejudice is evident in the fact that the inscrip­tion for Father Tolton is on the back side of the large cross that marks the other priest’s grave.

Father Tolton spent only a few years in this area, leaving his native Brush Creek when a lad. Yet Brush Creek claims him as its own, and he is considered as one of it’s most illustrious sons.

Some people think that the Taken families who live in Monroe City are related to Father Tolton, the spelling of the name having been changed over the years. Father Landry doubts this, as he has found no evidence in his studies to indicate that anyone bearing the name was left in Missouri. Yet there are local people who insist that the relationship exists.

The 79 years since Father Tolton’s death have seen many changes in the lot of the American Negro. But there is still a long way to go before equality is more than a word. Father Tolton was probably Northeast Missouri’s outstanding black citizen in the 19th Century. Although his efforts ap­peared to meet failure on every side, his was a triumph of the spirit, and it paved the way for other triumphs for his people.