Two cemeteries form a shroud at the small Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri, in which Augustus John Tolton was baptized in 1854. Today is the 120th anniversary of the death of Tolton, a slave who became America’s first African American priest and who today is on the path to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
One cemetery is lined in white limestone markers, as pleasing in appearance as lilies of Easter, with names of birth and death dates etched into their faces. “Kentucky,” from which many of the deceased had come, appears on most. In the second cemetery, memories are lost. There were no markers for those buried here. These were graves of unnamed slaves.
In this church, St. Peter Catholic Church of Brush Creek, the Tolton boy’s mother, Martha Jane Chisley, and his father, Peter Paul Tolton, were married in the spring of 1851. Chisley was part of Susan Manning Elliott’s marriage dowry, one of the “batch of slaves” she received when she married Stephen Elliott at her father’s plantation in Mead County, Kentucky, in 1849. The Hagar family, whose property lies alongside the Elliotts’ in Ralls County, bought Peter Tolton at an auction in Hannibal.
Her scream, which carried across the fields between the two slave properties, brought Tolton running to Chisley to find her holding the limp body of a slave boy who had died of exhaustion under the heat of the summer sun. Tolton returned to look for her in the days ahead. Their owners permitted them to marry as nature re-adorned the Missouri landscape in the spring of 1851. In two years, a boy Charley was born. Augustine was born on April 1, 1854, and sister Anne was born in 1859. Father John O’Sullivan baptized each child in St. Peter Church at Brush Creek soon after birth.
Of things eternal, this was the full measure of the life seven-year-old Augustine John Tolton knew of what lay beyond the tobacco fields and vegetable farms of northeast Missouri. People of Tolton’s color were born. They ate. They slept. They worked (hard and long). And they died. Their Catholicism did little to ease their suffering. That was physical suffering. As he matured, Tolton would also know the emotional suffering of race, the stings because of his skin, even in his own church.
Tolton family history claims that Peter Tolton fled his owners to join the Union Army as the Civil War began in April 1861. That African Americans were prohibited from military service, among other reasons, make that unlikely. But it was known that Tolton had grown increasingly agitated that his bondage would never end. He fled Brush Creek, and his family never heard from him again.
In 1862, the threat of slave traders in northeast Missouri compelled Martha Tolton to flee with her children. She made her way to Quincy, where there were “folks (who) had broke away from slavery.” It was a harrowing escape, but she and her children arrived in Quincy and were taken in by a widow Davis, with whom they lived for the next several years.
Family tradition, as well as Brush Creek lore, is that the Elliotts freed Martha Tolton and her children. Elliott descendants say Susan Elliott was close to Tolton, serving as his godmother when he was baptized. The Toltons became well known to Quincy, which would have made them vulnerable to capture. But no documents indicate that the Elliotts pursued them. So, that history is uncertain. Years later, however, Father Tolton said a $200 bounty had been placed on the head of his mother and the three children.
In Quincy, nine year old Tolton, his mother, and his brother Charley, began working at the Harris Tobacco Factory at 5th and Ohio Streets in 1863. The cigar factory closed during winters, permitting Tolton to enroll in St. Boniface School. Threats from some parishioners caused Father Herman Schaefermeyer to remove the family from the parish. Father Peter McGirr, a strong-willed Irish-immigrant, encouraged them to join St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish. Having suffered privation in his native Ireland, McGirr sympathized with the Toltons, ignored threats from his parishioners, and became Tolton’s most important mentor.
Tolton worked as a janitor at St. Lawrence, by then renamed St. Peter, and discerned a calling to the priesthood. When it appeared his minimal education would deprive Tolton of the opportunity, McGirr arranged for tutoring by Franciscan priests at St. Francis Solanus College, today’s Quincy University, in 1873. While Tolton was engaged in classical studies, McGirr began inquiring about Tolton’s entry into a seminary. He was denied admission in the United States because of his race. But McGirr and Father Michael Richard, a Franciscan priest, won an appointment for Tolton at the College for the Propagation of the Faith, a training school for Catholic missionaries, in Rome. McGirr got the diocese to pay for it.
Ordained a priest in Rome in 1886, Tolton, 36, celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s and returned to Quincy, where thousands greeted him on July 17. For five years, he pastored St. Joseph Church in Quincy. Controversy followed him, however, and he asked for transfer to serve African Americans in Chicago. There he established St. Monica’s Parish. Just back from a speaking trip, he suffered a heat stroke and died on July 9, 1897, in Chicago. His wish was to be buried in St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in Quincy, where he had experienced both suffering and triumph.
Ankrom, Reg, “Father Peter McGirr: Patron of ‘Father Gus.’” Herald Whig, July 25, 2012.
“Augustine Tolton.” www.frreereppublic.com/focus/f-religion/2695280/replies?c=1
“Father Augustine Tolton First Black Priest.” www. Rootsweb.ancestry.com/~momonroe/Tolton.htm
Hemeseth, Sister Caroline, O.S.F., From Slave to Priest: Biography of Rev. Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), First Afro American Priest of the United States. Chicago: The Franciscan Herald Press, 1973.
Perry, Bishop Joseph N., “Father Augustus Tolton: A Brief Biography of a Faithful Priest and Former Slave.” Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago, 2013.