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From American slave to Catholic priest: Meet “Good Father Gus”


Public Domain

Larry Peterson - published on 02/15/16

The heroic story of Father Augustus Tolton

April 1, 1854, Brush Creek, Missouri: Peter Tolton paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to their second son. They named him Augustus (after his uncle), and before the month was out, the baby was baptized in nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augustus’ godmother.

The baptism of Augustus was a bit unusual. That was because Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot, who happened to be the “owner” of Augustus’ mom and dad. Mr. and Mrs. Tolton were slaves, and their three children, Charley, Augustus and Anne, were born into slavery. The slave master made sure his slaves were baptized, and his family and his slaves were all Catholic.

After the Civil War began, the Toltons ran for freedom. Peter joined the Union army, and the rest of the family headed north. With the help of Union soldiers, Martha Jane and her children arrived in Illinois, a “free” state. Martha Jane and the children settled in Quincy, Illinois.

Martha Jane and her oldest boy, Charley, were hired by a local tobacco company to make cigars while Augustus, aged eight or nine, charged with taking care of his little sister, began spending a lot of time across the street from St. Peter’s Church. The pastor was Father McGirr.

Father McGirr had noticed Augustus and his sister, and after a while he approached the boy. He introduced himself and asked a frightened Augustus if he would like to go to school. Augustus was thrilled with the prospect.

Most of the white parishioners did not want a black student being taught along with their white children. Father McGirr held fast and firm and insisted the boy study at St. Peter’s. Martha Jane was shocked that her son had been offered such an opportunity and agreed for him to go. Augustus Tolton’s life journey had been set before him even though he did not know it.

The boy received his first communion, became an altar boy and proved to be a brilliant student. By the 1870s, when prejudice was basically taken for granted, Father McGirr was attempting to enroll Augustus in a seminary so he might study for the priesthood. The young black man was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. But a tenacious and determined Father McGirr never gave up. They both continued praying and trying, and finally, Father McGirr secured admission for Augustus to St. Francis Solanus College located right there in Quincy. Upon graduation, Augustus was accepted into the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. In 1886, at the age of 32, Augustus Tolton was ordained to the priesthood in Rome.

Newspapers from across the country told the story of the former slave now ordained as a Catholic priest. When Father Tolton arrived back in Quincy, he was greeted as a hero. A brass band played, and Negro spirituals were sung as thousands of people, white and black, lined the streets, holding hands and singing as they waited to catch a glimpse of the former slave boy who had been ordained a Catholic priest.

Father Tolton walked down the avenue dressed in his cassock and wearing the biretta. When he arrived at St. Boniface Church, hundreds were crowded inside, wanting to receive his blessing. His very first blessing went to Father McGirr, who was still by his side. The next day Father Tolton said his first Mass, with thousands left standing outside since there was no more room in the church.

On a steaming July day many years later, in 1897, with the temperature at 105 degrees, Father Tolton was returning from a retreat in Bourbonnais, Ill. He had been ill for quite some time and had never told anyone. When he stepped from the train he collapsed. Taken to the hospital, he died a few hours later from sunstroke. He was only 43 years old. His community was shocked. They had lost a dear friend. “Good Father Gus,” as he was lovingly called by his parishioners, was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy.

Father Augustus Tolton was declared a Servant of God on February 24, 2011, placing the priest on the road to canonization.

For more in depth information on Father Gus, visit

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