Born Into Slavery, Fr. Augustus Tolton May Become a Saint

Born Into Slavery, Fr. Augustus Tolton May Become a Saint October 5, 2014

Fr. Augustus Tolton
Fr. Augustus Tolton

On March 2, 2010, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, announced that he was beginning an official investigation into Father Augustus Tolton’s life and virtues, with a view to opening the Cause for his canonization. 

The following year—on February 24, 2011—the Roman Catholic Church officially began the formal introduction of the Cause for sainthood of Father Tolton.  He was designated Servant of God; and Historical and Theological Commissions were established, with the responsibility for investigating his life and teachings.

And on September 29, 2014, Cardinal George–in one of his last official acts before Archbishop-Designate Blase Cupich assumes leadership of the archdiocese in November–formally closed the investigation.  During a ceremony in the St. James Chapel of Chicago’s Archbishop Quigley Center, Cardinal George bound and sealed with wax the dossier or Acta, the collected and bound documents–including newspaper articles, correspondence, and eyewitness testimonies–which demonstrate that Father Tolton did or did not exhibit heroic virtue.

The dossier has now been shipped to Rome, where it will be reviewed by theologians at the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints in the Vatican, and a Positio, summarizing the life and virtues of the Servant of God, will be prepared.  Hopefully, if the theologians agree that Father Tolton lived a life of heroic virtue, the positio will be passed along to the cardinal, archbishop and bishop members of the Congregation for Causes of Saints.  If their vote is affirmative, the Congregation will prepare a Decree of Heroic Virtue, which will be forwarded to the Holy Father for final judgment.  

Who Was Fr. Augustus Tolton?

Augustus Tolton was born on a plantation near Brush Creek, Missouri, in 1854.  His father, Peter Paul Tolton, escaped slavery during the Civil War, when he joined the Union Army.  Augustus’ mother escaped later with the help of sympathetic Union soldiers and police, rowing with her three children Charley, Augustus and Anne across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois, where the family settled in Quincy.

With his mother and brother, Augustus went to work at the Herris Tobacco Factory, where they manufactured cigars.  There he met an Irish-American priest, Father Peter McGirr, who offered him an opportunity to study at his parish school during the months when the factory was closed.  Despite complaints by some parents that a black child was permitted to study at their children’s school, Father McGirr remained firm in his decision; and Augustus learned to read and write under his tutelage.  At age 16, he was confirmed at St. Peter Catholic Church.

When he completed school, Augustus pursued a vocation to the priesthood; but even with Fr. McGirr’s support, he could find no American seminary willing to accept an African-American student.  With Father McGirr’s help, he studied in Rome.  He graduated from St. Francis Solanus College and attended the Pontifical Urbaniana University, where he mastered Italian, Latin and Greek.

He was ordained in Rome in 1886, at the age of 31.  Father Tolton had expected to be sent to minister in Africa; but instead, he was directed back to the United States to serve the black community.   He served, first, at a parish in Quincy.  When he was reassigned to Chicago, he led a mission society, St. Augustine’s, that met in the basement of St. Mary’s Church.  He led in development of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, a Negro “national parish” on Chicago’s South Side.

Called “Good Father Gus” by his parishioners, he was known for his eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice, and his talent for playing the accordion. Father Tolton died in 1897 at the age of 43, victim of a heat wave which had plagued the city.  

A Big Celebration in Chicago Today

On Sunday, October 5, there will be a Gala Benefit Fundraiser for the Cause for Sainthood of Father Augustus Tolton.  Scheduled for 12:00 noon in the Union League Club, the gala is co-sponsored by the Father Tolton Guild, the Office of Bishop Joseph N. Perry and the Office for Black Catholics.  There will be a reception and silent auction at 1:00 p.m., followed by a luncheon at 2:30 p.m.   The Master of Ceremonies will be Harry Porterfield of CBS Chicago WBBM-TV Channel 2.

For more information about the Gala, visit, or the official website for Father Tolton’s Cause,

And to learn more about the life of this great priest of God, read From From Slave to Priest: The Inspirational Story of Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897)by Caroline Hemesath.


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