America’s First Black Priest: From Slave to Saint?

On a June 5, 1891, the popular Chicago pastor Fr. Gus wrote a letter to Mother Katharine Drexel promising,

“I shall work and pull at it as long as God gives me life, for I am beginning to see that I have powers and principalities to resist anywhere and everywhere I go.”

Fr. Augutus Tolton, Wikimedia Commons

St. Katharine Drexel, a rich Philadelphian who had devoted her fortune and her life to religion, is the only person born in the U.S. to have been named a saint.* Fr. Gus—otherwise known as the Venerable Augustus Tolton—could become the second. He was not, however, born a citizen like St. Katharine. He was born a slave. He became the first undeniably Black man to be ordained a priest in the USA and the demonic powers against which he contended included racism.**

* Katharine Drexel is the only saint born in this country while it was a country. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in New York two years before the Declaration of Independence and a dozen other saints were either immigrants to the USA or lived in territory that would later be controlled by the USA.

** Other men with African ancestry had been ordained priests before, but they had enough European blood to “pass” as white.

Augustus Tolton as a Child

Tolton’s childhood had one blessing: a strong mother who loved her children and God. The rest was hard. His parents met over their joint effort to help a fellow slave dying of heatstroke. They could only marry in 1859, five years after Augustus’ birth, because they needed the permission of their Missouri slave owners. Augustus’ father ran north to join the Union army during the Civil War; his mother followed with the children a year later. Accosted by Confederate soldiers, rescued at the last second by soldiers in blue, Augustus’ family finally made it to Illinois and freedom in 1862.

In 1863, Augustus’ only brother died. He and his mother scraped by on menial jobs. Then came the news that his father had died as well. The family found some comfort in the local Catholic parish, built for German immigrants. Augustus’ intelligence (quickly picking up German) impressed the priest who enrolled the uneducated boy in the all-white parish school. It was a disaster. Kids made fun of him for not knowing even the basics. Parents threatened to withdraw their children if a Black boy continued. The priest backed down. Augustus’ mother withdrew him and started going to another parish.

That was when things changed. The new pastor, Fr. McGirr, was made of sterner stuff. The feisty Irish immigrant insisted that Augustus return to Catholic school. When his parishioners complained, he preached sermon after sermon demonstrating from scripture that Christ called all people regardless of race. When the prayerful young Augustus discerned a call to the priesthood, Fr. McGirr wrote every seminary in the USA trying to get him in and promising financial support. When they turned him down—fearing backlash for admitting a Black student—McGirr came up with another solution: Rome.

The Success and Slow Martyrdom of Fr. Gus

Augustus finally found admittance in the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Church’s missionary arm based in the Vatican. There the Church ordained him a priest. He expected to go to the burgeoning mission fields of Africa, but the cardinal in charge surprised him. His mission field would be Illinois. Augustus protested; the cardinal wryly replied,

America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.

Fr. Gus (as his parishioners affectionately called him) passed the test of priesthood with flying colors. His sanctity lay in his total dedication to his flock. His gentle but powerful preaching filled his first mixed-race parish to standing room-only. For his next mission, creating St. Monica’s parish in Chicago for African-Americans, he spent long hours visiting poor residents at homes and lived in poverty himself to save the money needed for building the new church. Black Chicagoans took the lead in constructing it, but funds were still scare and that is why Fr. Gus also went on speaking tours and petitioned St. Katharine Drexel for funds (successfully).

Parishioners started to notice that Fr. Gus’ hands would shake during Mass and sometimes he had to sit down when delivering his homily. Augustus’ hard work would have tired any man, but what truly wore him down was those American Catholics who failed the cardinal’s test of accepting a black priest. Augustus never lost his temper and rarely named the people who hurt him, but that hurt existed and occasionally burst out in his private letters. His first parish in Quincy, Illinois failed when the senior priest in the city stopped white Catholics from attending the Black priest’s parish and demanded any money they had donated be turned over. The archbishop of Chicago, who invited him to create St. Monica’s, was more supportive, but there was no escaping the continued prejudice that Fr. Gus faced daily because of his skin.

On July 9, 1897, the exhausted Fr. Tolton collapsed from heatstroke on the streets of Chicago and died. He was only 43.

Grave marker for Augustus Tolton at St. Peter’s cemetery, Quincy, IL, photo by Chad, Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0

The Catholic Church and African-Americans in the 1800s

In one of his speaking tours, Fr. Gus said,

“The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery—that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight. I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word. It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors… It was through the direction of a Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are Black. She had colored saints: Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.”

Quoted in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s booklet, “Fr. Augustus Tolton” (pp. 15-16)

As Augustus’ speech shows, the Catholic Church had a golden opportunity to confront the evil of racism in nineteenth-century America. It had an intellectual tradition that embraced universal humanity. Though much better off than African-Americans, Catholics in the USA also knew the sting of pervasive discrimination and even violence (such as the Philadelphia riots of 1844). That no doubt bred anti-racist sympathy in people like Fr. McGirr. Catholics (including St. Katharine Drexel) arguably did more to run orphanages and schools for Black children than any other religious group in the early United States.

Yet the majority of American Catholics gave into racism. Racism was something that was just part of the culture. How could something that “everyone believes” be wrong? Even good people struggled. Mother Mary Lange (another Black candidate for sainthood) had to found her own religious order since white orders (even those ministering to African-Americans) were reluctant to let Black women join them.

Fr. Gus’ witness (the literal translation of the Greek word martyr) converted some, but only some. It is interesting and a little sad to imagine how the history of the USA and the American Catholic church might have been different if more Catholics had accepted the words of Fr. Tolton or Fr. McGirr and challenged the racist culture around them.

Learning from Augustus Tolton: Choosing God rather than the World

What can we learn from the holy life of Augustus Tolton? I suggest there are three big lessons.

First, and most obviously, racism is bad and its effects wear down the soul.

Second, his witness shows us how to love our enemies even in the face of gnawing, low-level but constant hatred. I would think he would be a powerful intercessor for that virtue.

Third, we must ask ourselves which of our beliefs come from the world and which come from God. Every age and nation has had tremendous moral blindspots—such as slavery—that people in it have had trouble even questioning. Only someone who is irrational or seduced by pride would argue that modern America is the only society in history to be exempt. So which of your beliefs about society, politics, or religion are worldly and based on what “everyone believes” rather than what God teaches?

If you are open to that self-examination, then read the statements that come from the U.S. bishops. You will need to do some extra work to find them. The media usually only reports (badly) when bishops make statements on abortion. When bishops make statements on immigration, medical ethics, financial support for poor families, defense spending, or racism, the media and most people simply ignore them. That’s a shame because, if you listen to those pastors, you will find something to help you reexamine your beliefs whether you are liberal or conservative. You do not have to uncritically accept all their prudential judgments about how to apply Catholic teaching to concrete policies and problems, but you may find them useful for at least beginning your reflections.


The two websites that do the best job of collecting Catholic news including statements by bishops are Catholic World News (more conservative) and Crux (slightly more liberal). Or you can go directly to

For a list of recent statements on racism and events or legislation related to it, see Many bishops have put out statements locally as well.

Additional Note: Canonizing Venerable Augustus Tolton

The process of making someone a saint (“canonization”) requires approval from three authorities: the local bishop, the Pope, and then God. Augustus Tolton has received the first two, which gives him the title of Venerable Servant of God. Now he needs God to show approval by working two miracles after his intercession. So, if you would like to help create the first African American saint, then go ahead and ask for Augustus’ intercession for a miracle cure to an incurable illness.

For information on his cause, see

Augustus Tolton would be the first African American saint. However, there are currently Black saints (such as Martin de Porres and Charles Lwanga), saints who are former slaves (such as Patrick and Pope Calixtus), and saints who are both Black and former slaves (such as Josephine Bakhita and Benedict the Moor). The Church really is a wonderful and diverse place.