Lewis Celebrates the Life of Forgotten African American Hero

Augustus Tolton

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the University Ministry celebrated the life of Father Augustus Tolton on Wednesday, Jan. 22. The event occurred from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the D’Arcy Great Room. The presenter of the panel, Joseph Perry, Archdiocese of Chicago, has been actively trying to gain Saintship for Father Tolton.

It was the historic week of the celebrated holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and while many may not know of Father Agustus Tolton, he is revered for paving the way for African American ministers like Dr. King. 

Tolton and King are separated by about 100 years, and the recognition of these two important figures is just as vast. One has a statue in the National Mall of Washington D.C, and the other remains a mostly unknown gem. 

Worth $25 dollars as a nine-year-old slave, Tolton persevered through great trials and diversity to earn the status of a priest. Tolton’s mother had to make a daring 43-mile escape from slavery with Tolton and his younger sister for her children to have freedom. 

During his childhood, Tolton transferred between public schools and Catholic schools. He was intelligent and spoke four languages (Spanish, German, Italian and English), but because Tolton was black and wanted to be a priest, he faced discrimination. 

He was rejected from catholic schools but kept on going back against all odds.  In 1866, Tolton was ordained as the first African American priest. Despite his skills and status, Tolton was never fully accepted in the church. At first, he was supposed to teach in Africa, but, he was challenged to return home to the U.S. and preach here.

Tolton preached at a small and incomplete church called St. Monica, named in honor of the mother of the Saint of Augustine. Both minorities and whites went to church services because of the popularity and power in his sermons.  

Because it was a time where blacks and whites were not supposed to associate, Tolton was reprimanded by the Church for trying to spread the love of God to caucasians. 

At a time when African Americans were treated like second-class citizens, blacks could not go anywhere whites were. This meant they couldn’t go to the same schools, bathrooms, stores, hospitals or even cemeteries. 

In a time like this, Father Tolton was still trying to not only spread the word of God but tolerance for all of God’s creatures even when he was discriminated against. According to Perry, Tolton “dealt with harshness and bigotry but he never spat it back.” Tolton was, and still is, an inspiration. 

In July 1897, during Chicago’s biggest heat-wave, Tolton died of a heat stroke at the age of 43.  Tolton never got to see his church be completed. After his death, the church was razed, leaving it unfinished and abandoned. 

Tolton was an inspiration to many people, including senior Diann Locket. Majoring in clinical health and mental health, Locket came to the event because she was curious about Tolton as she had a strong relationship with the Church. Raised as Protestant and working at the Ministry, Locket felt inspired by Father Tolton’s story and hopes he gains sainthood.

During a question and answer session, Perry revealed that after Tolton, there were four other African American men similar to Tolton. None could compare to Tolton, as all succumbed to the hatred of others. One even suffered a nervous breakdown due to discrimination and hazing.

Even with the harsh treatments of African Americans by society and the Church then, Perry believes that the “Catholic Chuch is the institution necessary for the advancement of the colored race.”   

The event ended with the audience joining Perry in the prayer he wrote, titled “Prayer for the Cause of Father Augustus Tolton.” Tolton’s trial for Sainthood began on June 11, 2011, and is still continuing today. He’s currently in the final stage awaiting a miracle to happen if someone prays for him. 

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