Father Augustine Tolton, the first African-American Catholic priest who started life enslaved in the 19th century U.S. South, is on the path to sainthood. The Vatican said Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Tolton’s “heroic virtues,” an early step in the sainthood process, after a five-year investigation in Chicago.
Tolton was born in Bush Creek, Missouri on April 1, 1854 into a family of enslaved Africans owned by a White Roman Catholic family.
His father escaped bondage by serving in the Union army during the Civil War and the rest of the family gained freedom in 1862 by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, a free state. They settled in Quincy, Illinois.
Although tutored by Catholics who recognized his intellectual prowess, he had to study for the priesthood at a papal university in Rome because no seminary in the United States would take him. He was ordained in 1886, becoming the first African-American Catholic priest, and returned to Quincey where he faced three difficult years of hostility. He was later transferred to Chicago where he built the community of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, which served African Americans in the city. He served in Black parishes the state of Illinois until his death in 1897.He was 43.