Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. Matthew 7:24-25
Fr. Augustus Tolton, born to slave parents in Missouri in1854, is considered the first Black Roman Catholic priest in America. As a young man, he heard the call to the priesthood. But he faced insults, torments, and threats on the lives of those who supported him as well as on his own life. Still, he persevered and worked tirelessly for those under his care. He could do this because he built his heart’s house on rock.
When the Civil War broke out in1861, Augustus’s father went to join the Union Army but died before serving. So, Augustus’s mother fled Missouri with her children, arriving in Quincy, Illinois, in 1862. By 1863 nine-year-old Augustus was laboring in a tobacco factory there. His older brother, who was only 10 years old, died of pneumonia that year.
In 1865, Augustus entered the all-white St. Boniface School in Quincy. Some parents would not allow their children to attend school with him; others withheld support from the parish and threatened the pastor. Still more threw cruel insults at Augustus which caused him to suffer greatly. He was withdrawn from the school one month after he had begun. His family then joined St. Peter’s parish where Gus, as friends called him, felt safe. There had been tormentors at St. Peter’s too, but the pastor of the parish taught peace during his Sunday homilies, and Gus was able to attend school. Even though he could only be present in class three months each year for several years due to his work in the tobacco factory, he learned quickly and cherished serving Mass. Making both his First Communion and Confirmation at 16, Gus finally graduated at age 18.
Working his way through what is now Quincy University, Gus applied to many seminaries but was rejected due to his color. With help from the Franciscans, he was finally accepted into the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome. From there, he was sent back to the United States to serve Black Catholics, first in Quincy and then in Chicago, Illinois. Teaching tirelessly, visiting the sick in their homes and caring for those on the streets in impoverished areas, Fr. Tolton wore himself out for the Church.
Fr. Tolton’s example speaks to us today in the midst of upheaval caused by systemic racism. He worked for social justice and tried to alleviate the searing poverty experienced by so many in his parishes.
Fr. Augustus Tolton is our fifth Ornament of Grace.
Observing the Beautiful Ornaments
What rains, floods, and winds buffeted Fr. Tolton’s heart?
When rains, floods and winds buffet your heart, how can you stay strong and continue to love?