Book Review — November 25, 2020 at 11:39 am

Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest


A former US slave who became the first African-American to become a Catholic priest, is now one step closer toward sainthood.

Father Augustus Tolton died in 1897 in Chicago
Father Augustus Tolton died in 1897 in Chicago

Chronology of Events

  • Pope Francis made Father Augustus Tolton “Venerable” within the church, alongside seven others, in a Vatican announcement on Wednesday.
  • Born on a plantation, he escaped slavery with his family in childhood.
  • However, racial discrimination in the US meant he had to travel to Rome to get his priest’s training.
  • To become a saint, he would have to have two miracles attributed to him approved by the Vatican.
  • The priest is now nine years into the canonisation process, including a 2016 exhumation of his body.
  • The change in status means Catholics can now pray to him for intercession with God.
  • Augustine Tolton was born on 1 April 1854 in Brush Creek, Missouri.
  • As a teenager his mother, Martha Jane Chisley, was gifted to her slave owners as a wedding gift. At the plantation she met another slave, Peter Paul Tolton, whom she married and had three children with.
  • As civil war broke out Augustine’s father escaped to fight, and later died, for the Union army.
  • The rest of their family then fled from slavery to Quincy, Illinois.
  • He and his siblings were then enrolled in a local all-white Catholic school, but were forced out by angry local parents.
  • With the help of a local priest, Augustine’s education and involvement with the church continued in spite of protests and he was confirmed aged 16.
  • Despite requests by his mentor, every teaching seminary and order in the US rejected him because of his race.
  • In his twenties his family moved back to Missouri. Eventually another priest, in desperation, wrote to Rome on his behalf. The plan worked and in 1880 he departed to Italy for training and was ordained in 1886.
  • Father Tolton returned to Quincy – where he welcomed black and white parishioners alike.
  • However, he reportedly attracted the ire of a new pastor who aimed racial slurs at him and dissuaded white Catholics from attending his services. Given the difficult situation, he reluctantly requested a transfer.
  • In December 1889 he was approved to move to the Archdiocese of Chicago – where he would be given full jurisdiction over African-American parishioners.
  • With the population facing unemployment and endemic poverty, he fundraised to build a church for local black Catholics.
  • Construction started in 1893 but was halted two years later due to lack of funding.
  • Under extreme pressure, Father Tolton became overwhelmed with illness. In July 1897, aged 43, he died from complications from heat stroke.
  • The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago announced his cause for canonisation in 2010. He then received the designation “Servant of God” by the Vatican one year later.
  • “From slave to priest. That’s an amazing American story,” Michael Patrick Murphy, director of Catholic Studies for Loyola University Chicago, told the AP news agency.
  • “He went from having lived amid the greatest sin in American culture to being a minister that would address that kind of moral crime, a fully scoped life.”

Book details
Author: Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers
File size: 310 KB (Kindle Edition)
Publication date: January 28, 2019
Word Wise: Enabled
Print length: 114 pages
Publisher: EWTN Publishing, Inc (January 28, 2019)
Enhanced typesetting: Enabled
Simultaneous device usage: Unlimited
Screen Reader: Supported
Text-to-Speech: Enabled
X-Ray: Not Enabled
Language: English
Lending: Enabled

In these fascinating pages, popular author and speaker Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers tells the gripping story of Augustine Tolton, who valiantly overcame a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges — birth into slavery, his father’s death, abject poverty, and even being denied acceptance by every Catholic seminary in America — to become the first black American priest.

Despite the hardships placed on Fr. Tolton by a culture rooted in racial hatred, he became a tireless messenger of the Gospel, plunging into the Deep South where segregation was decreed by harsh laws, penetrating even the hardest of hearts with the richness, beauty, and truth of the Catholic Faith.

He was a beacon of hope to black Catholics in the 19th Century who were trying to find a home in the American Church. He was a visionary who saw beyond race and politics, teaching that the Catholic Church wants to free us not just from slavery, but from slavery to sin.

Amidst great persecution, Fr. Tolton showed us that being configured to Christ means emptying ourselves so that God can fill us, exposing the weakest parts of who we are so that God can make us strong, becoming blind to the ways of this world so Christ can lead us, and dying to ourselves so we can rise with Christ.

All who seek to be formed more perfectly to Christ have a role model in Fr. Tolton, a persevering and holy man who sought above all the salvation of souls.

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is fast becoming one of the most sought after Catholic speakers, not just in the United States, but globally. Residing in Oregon with his wife, Colleen, and their four beautiful children, Deacon Harold’s message is being spread worldwide through his speaking engagements, CDs and DVDs. His passionate approach to evangelizing the truth of the Catholic faith will both challenge and inspire those who hear him. He is dedicated to teaching and promoting Catholic values in complete faithfulness to Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. His goal is simple: to bring people to a deeper love of Christ through the truth of the Catholic faith.

Deacon Harold is very active in giving lectures, retreats and seminars in parishes as well as at conferences. He is also busy writing for several publications. He has had many appearances on EWTN, as well as on many radio programs, both nationally and internationally. Currently, followers of Deacon Harold’s message are able to take the message home with them by ordering one of his CDs or DVDs at his website,


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