Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From Slave to Priest

Cover image for From slave to priest : a biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), first black American priest of the United States / Caroline Hemesath ; with a foreword by Harold Burke-Sivers.

Father Augustine Tolton was born on a plantation near Hannibal, Missouri in 1854.  Both his parents were slaves.  His father escaped at the outbreak of the Civil War, and his mother followed with the children shortly thereafter, but the couple were never reunited, his father having died of dysentery.  Tolton grew up in Quincy, Illinois, and from an early age the Church was at the center of his life.  Thanks to sympathetic priests he was able to acquire an education, largely through private tutoring.  His desire to become a priest was long frustrated by the unwillingness of any American seminary to accept him, a difficulty that was ultimately overcome by his admission to a seminary in Rome.  He was ordained a priest at the Basilica of St John Lateran - the cathedral of Rome - in 1886, at the age of 31.  He was assigned to the diocese of Alton, Illinois, but was subsequently transferred to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he became the pastor of St Monica's Church on the south side.

Although Father Tolton acquired a certain level of celebrity as the first American Catholic priest of primarily African descent* and was recognized as an eloquent speaker, he was less successful at the day to day work of running a parish.  His meekness and humility, which were remarked upon by all who knew him, frustrated those, both at his time and later, who would have preferred a more assertive leader.  Those same qualities of quiet holiness did not go officially unrecognized, however - his cause for canonization was officially opened in 2010.
Sister Hemesath's biography is a pious, popular work, full of invented dialogue both internal and external.  Those looking for an inspiring story will be pleased, those who would prefer a "realistic" account will not.  Those looking for more insight are referred to The History of Black Catholics in the United States, which covers Father Tolton's career and places it in a wider context.

* - Father Tolton is identified in the subtitle as "the first black priest of the United States".  There were several mixed race priests in the US in the mid-nineteenth century, including a bishop and a president of Georgetown University, but they did not self-identify as "black".  Likewise there were centuries worth of black priests outside the US, especially in Africa and Latin America - which is why the Roman seminary did not balk at Tolton's race.

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