Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Pioneer's Story

An effort's afoot to increase awareness of the life of Augstus Tolton (1854-97), the first African-American priest.

Ignatius Press has re-released a classic Tolton biography, and Chicago's first black bishop has embarked on spreading the gospel of his groundbreaking forerunner:
"When [Tolton] was alive, his life would probably not have been considered that newsworthy. He lived at a time when to be a person of color automatically meant that you were not a person of significance," says Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who served in 2001-2004 as the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "So the very fact that he was able to accomplish what he accomplished under severe limitations was to his credit."

Even Gregory, a native Chicagoan, did not know Tolton's story until he was well into adulthood.

"We need to find vehicles to make him better known today," he says....

The second of three children, Tolton was born in 1854 to Catholic parents who were slaves in Missouri, just a few years before the start of the Civil War.

His father, Peter Tolton, was one of many slaves who escaped to join the Union army and fight for black freedom - and who died battling for that cause, according to Hemesath's book.

Augustine, along with his mother, Martha Jane, and his two siblings, escaped across the Mississippi River to Illinois, frantically rowing a boat while ducking Confederate gunfire.

Eventually, they landed in Quincy, Ill., where Martha Jane, Augustine and his brother Charley worked in a tobacco factory.

Tolton met priests and nuns throughout his life who helped him, including some who taught him to read. Others, however, were angry that a black boy was being educated with whites and tried to stop him from realizing his dream of becoming a priest.

After years of rejection by U.S. seminaries, pleas on his behalf from sympathetic Catholics finally allowed Tolton to study in Rome, leading to his ordination in 1886, when he was 31.

Tolton had hoped to become a missionary in Africa as an escape from American racism.

Instead, he was assigned to a church in Quincy and later Chicago - a bitter disappointment that he nonetheless dutifully accepted. He went on to face more hardship and resentment, and little financial support for the black churches he oversaw.

"If anybody had an excuse to leave the Catholic Church, it was him," says Harold Burke-Sivers, a deacon in a Portland, Ore., parish, who is also African-American and who wrote the introduction to the newly issued biography.

"He saw what the church could be," he adds.