From Slave to Priest: Quincy’s Father Tolton

By Chloe Nott

No one could have predicted that a young slave from Missouri would one day become the first African-American priest in the United States.

Augustus Tolton was born the property of the Elliot family in 1854. At the age of 8, Tolton fled with his mother and siblings to the free state of Illinois. Upon arriving in Quincy, the Tolton family decided to settle and began attending the catholic Church of St. Peter. Tolton faced heavy racial discrimination, especially when trying to enroll in school. He was eventually accepted at St. Peter school with the blessing of Fr. Peter McGirr.

After graduating, Tolton decided he wanted to enter priesthood. Again he faced discrimination and was not permitted to attend any seminary school on the basis of his race. However, Quincy priests tutored him privately before he was accepted to St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University).

Two years later, Tolton left for Rome to study at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide and prepare for priesthood. He was ordained in 1886 and returned to Quincy to begin his ministry.

The Quincy Daily Journal wrote of Father Tolton’s return to Quincy in 1886 calling him “our colored priest.” They continued to report on Fr. Tolton’s movements and ministry as he preached at multiple churches in the region. He was described in one article as:

A man of medium size, dark brown in color, and (who) speaks rapidly and eloquently. The Quincy Daily Journal, 1886.

Portrait of Fr. Tolton in cassock and biretta.
Fr. Tolton. Image from the Quincy University Archives.

Contrary to the way he was treated by much of the community before becoming a priest, Fr. Tolton was now growing in popularity and praised for his teachings. Vivid descriptions of his ministry and preaching frequented the local papers. Wherever he went, people came to hear him.

The church was…Closely crowded from channel to vestibule by both white and colored persone. Daily Journal, 1886.

This unification of white and African-American races through faith was something only seen when Fr. Tolton was preaching. Society was at the time largely segregated, including places of worship. This breakthrough was not only seen at his parish, St. Josephs, but at other churches in other cities. An article recounting Fr. Tolton’s first high mass at St. Elizabeth’s in St. Louis, Missouri details just how much of an impact he made.

The crowd extended from the sanctuary rails out beyond the door and people were so closely packed in the isles that they could barely kneel. White people were in the preponderance, and every part of the city represented. The Quincy Daily Whig, 1886.

Father Gus, as he was commonly known, moved to Chicago in 1889 to establish a congregation for the black catholic community. He passed away in 1897 after suffering heatstroke in Chicago. A funeral was held in Chicago before he was taken to St. Peter’s cemetery in Quincy.

Fr. Tolton’s story is one of hardship, courage, persistence, and enduring faith. His legacy continues to enrich our knowledge of history and inspire change for future generations.

Quincy was once a city ahead of it’s time in the fight for social justice. Today, as the United States continues to strive for social justice, Quincy can look back at Fr. Tolton’s life as a reminder that anyone can make a difference.

The Brenner Library at Quincy University has an extensive collection of materials relating to Fr. Tolton.

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