Black History Month

Black History Month Series – Mother Mary Lange, OSP

Black History Month Series – Mother Mary Lange, OSP 191 264 SVDP USA

Racism is defined as systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another. Fortunately, this “pain of prejudice and racial hatred never blurred [the] vision” of Elizabeth Clarissa Lange, a free, French speaking, Black woman.  She walked into her vision around 1813, into Maryland from Santiago de Cuba (born circa 1794). Her arrival in Baltimore coincided with Sulpician priests, Haitian refugees, free blacks, and slaves escaping violence from the French Revolution. In Maryland, they found a haven and home to one of the country’s largest populations of Roman Catholics. Unfortunately, it was also a state that accommodated racism and institutional slavery.

Through the pain of racism, God opened Elizabeth’s heart and spirit to see children of immigrants, unsupervised, and uneducated; she became an eyewitness of injustice in America. Using her own funds and skills, with help from a few friends, she opened her home to educate and house orphaned immigrant children of color. In their collective devotion to intellectual, spiritual, and social development of students, she established the first Catholic School for children of color, providing instruction in a hostile, slave era. Later in 1828, Elizabeth founded the first and oldest, continuously operating school for Black students in the United States, St. Frances Academy.

Despite attitudes of the times, she continued to hear God’s voice and embraced another vision. In 1829, Elizabeth and three ladies (Magdaleine Balas, Rosine Boegue, and Almaide Duchemin), answered their calling, took their vows, under the spiritual direction of  Reverend James Hector Nicholas Joubert, SS (Founder), and became the first female religious order of African descent in the world. After prayerful consideration, they selected the name “oblate,” meaning “one who is specifically dedicated to God or God’s service,” and became the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth took the name of Sister Mary (Foundress). They embraced their calling, spirituality, and African identity by including St. Benedict the Moor as one of four special patrons for their religious community.

From the beginning, the Oblate Sisters of Providence confronted the humiliation of racism. Whites avoided them by walking on opposite sides of streets. Sometimes they were forced to walk in muddy streets because whites would not share sidewalks with them. Once Sister Mary almost met death by being pushed into a moving carriage because of racial hatred. They were never called Sisters, but Girls.

As people of color, they were required to sit in the rear of Church, and Holy Communion was offered to them from a different ciborium only after whites had received. Sister Mary knew God would provide, so she persevered, through prayer, to keep her new order vibrant, despite hatred among fellow Christians. Under the leadership of  Sister Mary (Mother Mary Lange), their faithfulness and numbers continued to flourish, and they provided an atmosphere of faith and hope to parents and children degraded by a slave society.

Unfortunately, racism continued to flourish in antebellum Baltimore, too. After the death of their founder, Fr. Joubert, financial hardships mounted. Although educated, with many skills, these Sisters never found opportunities to work beyond that of domestic workers. Also, housing became an issue for them: forced to move several times because of financial distresses; evicted because of their race; and uprooted abruptly for the City to run a street through their property to make them move (early days of gentrification). Unfortunately, their black lives made them vulnerable to unrelenting prejudice. Under the guidance of Mother Mary Lange, when people humiliated them, they prayed. When daily life tried to degrade them as a religious congregation, they served with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Catholic thinking of the day, considered them unworthy to wear veils, usually worn by white religious women, so they wore caps. All attempts to humiliate their religious community failed. Devoted to prayer, they worked hard to survive and gain respect for the Holy habit they did wear. Their habits made them visible, and their service made them indispensable in times of need. Requested to help during a Cholera pandemic that devastated the world in 1832, the Oblate Sisters of Providence chose to listen to God and served as nurses for victims of this disease. Again, God provided, and not one Sister lost their life because of that service. The Oblate Sisters adopted as their motto, “Providence will provide.” Yet the pain of prejudice never stopped.

In face of this relentless racism, many free black Baltimoreans of the times, protested, spoke out against racial discrimination, fought for organized schools and churches, built community institutions, criticized severely slavery, and advocated for emancipation, so did the Oblate Sisters of Providence. As foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Mother Mary Lange became the first Superior of this religious community. At their pinnacle, membership included more than three hundred Sisters in the United States, Cuba, and Costa Rica. From the beginning of their founding, Providence enabled the Sisters to demonstrate leadership and divine daring in the face of poverty, racism, humiliations, and untold hardships. Documents attesting to the heroic life of virtues, self-empowerment, and works of charity of Mother Mary Lange were received by the Congregation of the Saints in Rome. As she awaits the final word for her beatification and canonization, we pray and remember that she was “endowed by God with humility, courage, holiness and an extraordinary sense of service to the poor and sick…the pain of prejudice and racial hatred never blurred that vision.”

References

spiritual twinning

Black History Month Series – Spiritual Twinning, Part 2

Black History Month Series – Spiritual Twinning, Part 2 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Throughout Black History Month, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s African American Task Force wants to stress the importance of Vincentians coming together and sharing our faith. In the second of a two-part series, National Director of Formation Tim Williams shares with us the experiences some of the Spiritual Twinning participants from Holy Name Conference in Minneapolis and Immaculate Conception-St Cecilia in Baltimore.

Missed Part 1? You can find it here.

In the Words of the Participants

Vera Moukam
Immaculate Conception-St. Cecilia Conference

My appreciation for our SVDP Spiritual Twinning retreat is based on my experience from the two sessions I attended. The very first one on race dynamics with respect to the George Floyd sad incident was deep, emotional but yet graceful. I learned about my own biases, struggles based on my experiences with race and prejudice. Most of all I had the opportunity to learn from others.

The second session was for me a fulfilling spiritual retreat that gave me an opportunity to examine where I am in my faith journey with serving the Lord in the poor and what I should do to be like Christ to others. Not yet there and thus the need for such spiritual exercises to awaken my lukewarm attitude.

Patti Klucas, Spiritual Advisor
Holy Name Conference

I was very impressed by the twinning experience. It made me feel connected to other Vincentians in a way that I hadn’t experienced. It was personal and caring. Oftentimes I feel overwhelmed and alone in our work, even as the spiritual advisor I find myself floundering in a feeling of lack of support from those who don’t really understand and lost in a way to express that spiritual strength that comes from community. This gave me a connection with what I thought might be a totally different group and made me realize that we all are floundering in our abilities to serve and to grow. It has been amazing to hear that we all have the same struggles. I looked forward to every meeting. We have decided to continue meeting quarterly. We don’t want to lose contact with that feeling that we are all community. The whole experience was well worth it and now I know I have friends in the East!

Marie Wicks
Immaculate Conception-St. Cecilia Conference

What a blessing the Spiritual Twinning Retreat has been for our Conference, Immaculate Conception-St. Cecilia-Baltimore. In preparation for this retreat, we met several times, via conference call and Zoom, to discuss our thoughts on racial injustice and our role in serving people in need.  As conference in Baltimore City, where Freddie Gray was killed, we wanted to be sure that our feelings about being black in America did not interfere with getting to know this white Conference, Holy Name, serving in the neighborhood of George Floyd. Our Conference was ready.

Well, it worked, thanks to our moderator, Tim Williams, National Director of Formation. (The conversation was different from what we expected, no racial tension at all.) Using lessons and quotes from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s founders, the Rule, and Fratelli Tutti, he encouraged us to look inward first, examine our feelings, describe how we serve, and think about how we want to serve. Both conferences found themselves discussing their inner feelings related to faith and serving. Immaculate Conception-St. Cecilia Conference members left each session feeling grateful that we had discussed our thoughts and expressed all our hurt to each other before-hand because that enabled us to listen with our hearts. We weren’t disappointed in the topics because through them emotional and spiritual connections were revealed that opened the door for developing a friendship with Holy Name Conference. Our preparation enabled us to be present in the moment to truly listen and respond to one another from a God space.

Of course, there were moments to express personal thoughts, too. Those moments were different and shed light on how we react to events in our lives as parents, siblings, and friends. We heard the knowledge, compassion, and grace that sprang from those events and believe they influence our service as Vincentians greatly. In those discussions, we found so many similarities, which we will treasure.

Finally, we all agreed that what makes us stronger as Vincentians are our combined experiences in our faith walk and ministry of service. As we celebrate those conversations, we look forward to more interactions. Who knows where God will lead us in our growth as Vincentians, together or apart! Wherever it is, we will be ready to join the conversation with open minds and hearts.

Judy Aubert
Holy Name Conference

It was a privilege to participate in two twinning retreats with the SVdP conference from Baltimore. By answering questions presented by Tim Williams in regard to how we felt about different topics, we were able to get an idea of how we are alike and how we can learn from each other. It is obvious that the Baltimore Vincentians care about each other and they were very supportive of us and our feelings. I am looking forward to spending more time with them in the future.

Joan Scott, President
Immaculate Conception-St. Cecilia Conference

When our Conference, Immaculate Conception and St. Cecilia Catholic Churches, was asked about twinning with the SVdP Conference in Minneapolis, we were so thrilled.  We thought, “What a wonderful opportunity to speak with some of the people in Minneapolis who would have firsthand knowledge about the events surrounding George Floyd.” After conversing back and forth with some of the key players, we learned that the meetings, at first, would be along the lines of a spiritual retreat.  We always welcome the opportunity to sit back and focus on our Lord, so we agreed to begin the process.  Our first meeting, via Zoom, was mostly an introduction and a sharing of ideas on diversity and inclusiveness.  We shared ideas and agreed to meet again.   We have met several times and both conferences agreed that we would continue the Twinning experience.  We decided that it would be beneficial to share ideas about fundraising, recruiting new members, home visits during this pandemic, and other activities. 

Jim Sharpsteen
Holy Name Conference

I’ve been very pleased with the opportunity for Twinning with the conference in Baltimore and to see and hear their vision of Vincentian Spirituality in their own lives.  Each of the Twinning Retreats have helped me to get to know the Vincentians in Baltimore, and have helped me to gain new insights into how the Vincentian experience deepens our spiritual lives through our conferences’ missions, and helps us to grow closer to CHRIST and to each other in the Holy Spirit. 

Learn More About the African American Task Force

The African American Task Force seeks to promote the thriving of servant leaders in the Society as well as to embody an inclusive love and openness to all members in the spirit of the Gospel and Catholic social ethics.

To learn more about how to connect your Conference or Council with the AATF, please reach out to your regional representative. They are:

 

 

 

spiritual twinning

Black History Month Series – Spiritual Twinning, Part 1

Black History Month Series – Spiritual Twinning, Part 1 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Throughout Black History Month, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s African American Task Force wants to stress the importance of Vincentians coming together and sharing our faith.

In the first of a two-part series, National Director of Formation Tim Williams shares with us the background of the Spiritual Twinning Retreats between two Vincentian Conferences: Holy Name Conference in Minneapolis and Immaculate Conception-St Cecilia in Baltimore.

Building One Society Through Spiritual Twinning

In an 1833 letter to his friend Ernest Falconnet, Blessed Frédéric described a group of young men walking through the streets of Paris late at night, carrying on a conversation. A policeman might cast an uneasy eye at them, he said; passersby would not understand their language. “But I would understand them,” he said, “For I would be with them.”

Last May, when the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off nationwide demonstrations, many Americans, and many Vincentians, were suddenly struck by a feeling that we do not all speak the same language.

Holy Name Church in Minneapolis sits just blocks from the scene of George Floyd’s death. The members of the predominantly white Conference that serves this neighborhood were heartbroken, overwhelmed, and unsure how to even respond. Spiritual Advisor Patti Klucas felt that she was “floundering,” and “lost in a way to express that spiritual strength that comes from community.”

In Baltimore, which had experienced similar demonstrations following the death of Freddie Gray five years earlier, members of the predominantly African-American Conference at Immaculate Conception and St. Cecilia Churches, saw what seemed like history repeating itself, and found themselves hoping that this time, we might learn more from each other; that this time, it could be different.

At the invitation of Pamela Matambanadzo, who chaired the Society’s African American Task Force at the time, these two Conferences agreed to gather for a series of retreats that was titled “Spiritual Twinning” in the hope that they might all gain greater understanding, while growing in friendship, and deepening their spirituality.

Spiritual Twinning Retreats

Joan Scott, President of the Baltimore Conference, recounts that they were thrilled at this “wonderful opportunity to speak with some of the people in Minneapolis who would have firsthand knowledge about the events surrounding George Floyd.”

The series of retreats, conducted via Zoom, began by letting members get to know each other, listening to brief readings from our Vincentian Saints and Blesseds, and sharing some of their personal experiences – not just Vincentian experiences, but life experiences, including their experiences surrounding the death of George Floyd and finding ways to move forward.

As Marie Wicks from Baltimore said, “We heard the knowledge, compassion, and grace that sprang from those events and believe they influence our service as Vincentians greatly. In those discussions, we found so many similarities, which we will treasure.”

Drawing from the Gospels, letters of St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Frédéric, the Rule, Catholic Social Teachings, Fratelli Tutti, and more, members contemplated and discussed:

  • Are there times you struggle to understand the neighbor’s “language?” Or struggle to be understood?
  • In thinking about your own Vincentian service, where is the Lord missing? Where is He most needed? Where do you look for Him, but do not see Him there?
  • Echoing Christ’s questions from Matthew 16: Who do you say that your neighbors in need are? And who do your neighbors say that you are?
  • Considering the Parable of the Weeds from Matthew 13: Have you tried to pull weeds (doubt, disappointment, and despair) from the wheat right away, or have you chosen to wait and deal with them later?
  • Thinking of Bishop Hying’s letter: How can I make losses in my life a sign of hope? How can I share my hope?
  • How can we listen and understand, as the Rule says, “with [our] hearts, beyond both words and appearances?”

“It made me feel connected to other Vincentians in a way that I hadn’t experienced. It was personal and caring,” said Patti Klucas. Judy Aubert felt that by answering questions on how they “felt about different topics, we were able to get an idea of how we are alike and how we can learn from each other.”

Vera Moukam reflected that “the very first one on race dynamics with respect to the George Floyd sad incident was deep, emotional but yet graceful. I learned about my own biases, struggles based on my experiences with race and prejudice. Most of all I had the opportunity to learn from others.”

Members of both Conferences expressed that they looked forward to these opportunities to share openly, as friends. As Jim Sharpsteen from Holy Name put it, they gained “new insights into how the Vincentian experience deepens our spiritual lives through our conferences’ missions, and helps us to grow closer to CHRIST and to each other in the Holy Spirit.”

The two Conferences plan to continue to meet regularly, as members of One Society, growing in holiness together, and speaking the same language, each understanding the other, because they are with them.

Please see Part 2 for testimonials from some of those who participated in this spiritual twinning endeavor.

 

Black History Month Series – Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God

Black History Month Series – Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God 204 254 SVDP USA

“I like to tell folks that I have a little black nun inside of me,” Brother Mickey McGrath said in the introduction to his book This Little Light: Lessons in Living from Sister Thea Bowman. Brother Mickey, an artist, and a 50+ year old Irish American member of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales, did not get to meet Sister Thea before she died. That didn’t stop her from transforming his life. He experienced Sister Thea through research and conversations with people that knew her. Before ending that same introduction, Brother Mickey stated “I think that God, weary and hoarse from trying, just gave up and sent the unforgettable, indefatigable Sr. Thea Bowman to teach me a thing or two.”

An interview with Sister Gail Trippett revealed that Sister Thea had been her professor while completing her master’s in theology from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. Not only was Sister Gail one of her students but she was also one of two nuns invited to share Sister Thea’s Mississippi home once school was completed. One of the most meaningful remembrances from that time spent with Sister Thea was expressed by Sister Gail’s pronouncement “she wanted everyone to find the God inside themselves…She pushed the limits to help people find all they were capable of (doing).”

Sister Gail repeated to me Sister Thea’s testimony about a hometown experience that may have spearheaded her advocacy for people. In Sister Thea’s hometown of Canton, Mississippi there was an elderly black neighbor that walked to mass every single morning. This gentleman had to walk past a white Catholic church to get to the black Catholic church. One morning he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t feel he could make it to the black church. So, he stepped inside the white church to sit down in the back to pray until he could make it back home. The parishioners immediately called the police.  The elderly black man was arrested.

Sister Thea was so upset that she contacted the Bishop to get this man freed from jail. Sister Gail believes this was one of the moments that helped Sister Thea realize that we all have the opportunity to use our voice for others. There were a series of things like that. “Sister Thea knew if God gave her the ability to have a voice that others listened to in such a way that they would change – that’s what she was going to do. What she lived for was to be a servant to God’s plan for her life.” As a child she couldn’t have known that even after death people would listen to her words with both ears — whether they were children, elders, men, women, nuns, priests, bishops, Catholic, or non-Catholic.

Sister Thea Bowman’s address to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) included a quote from Malcolm X in which he stated “My folks, most of ‘em didn’t come over here on the Mayflower, they came over here on slave ships in chains.” Sister Thea pointed out that these folks were “proud, strong men and women – artists, teachers, healers, warriors, and dream-makers, inventors and builders, administrators, like yourselves; politicians, priests – they came to these shores in the slave trade. Those who survived the indignity of the Middle Passage came to the American continent bringing treasures of African heritage, African spiritual and cultural gifts – wisdom, faith and faithfulness, art and drama…” She told every person attending the USCCB Conference, “It means that I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song, and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gifts to the church.”

Sister Thea Bowman truly described herself when she told Mike Wallace during her 1987 60 Minutes interview, “I think the difference between me, and some people, is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But, if each one would light a candle, we’d have a tremendous light.”

She died from cancer at the age of 52. New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, whose motto was, ‘There can be no love without justice’, was among the many who saluted her in print. In his diocesan newspaper column, he wrote, “Friedrich Nietzsche said: ‘The world no longer believes because believers no longer sing.’ He didn’t know Sister Thea Bowman, dark nightingale. I am grateful that I did.” He called her a “quintessential woman,” a “quintessential religious,” a “quintessential black…never a whit self-conscious… When Sister Thea talked ‘soul,’ I knew that most of what I had listened to before had been stereotype. For her, ‘soul’ was all the misery of the crucifixion and all the glory of the resurrection.” He said he suspected that no one had a “deeper understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ…Sister Thea was quintessentially a Church-woman.” That’s why, he said, the “Bishops of the United States listened to her so raptly…There was a quiet in her suffering, a dignity, a nobility that never made light of pain, but never treated it as an impossible burden. “That he compared to the crucifixion, which, he said, she accepted,” as a gift beyond measure.

Sister Thea’s father’s father was a slave who achieved a 2nd grade education. Her mother’s mother was a teacher for which the Greenville, Mississippi school she founded carries her name. Theron, her father, was a physician. Her mom, Esther, was a teacher. Sister Thea’s parents named her Bertha. Born in Yazoo, she grew up in Canton, Mississippi. She was brought up in the Methodist church but converted to Catholicism as a pre-teen, as a result of ‘evangelization through education.’ She knew quite early that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the educators (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) at Holy Child Jesus School. So, at the age of fifteen, Bertha headed to St. Rose Convent, the La Crosse, Wisconsin motherhouse of the Franciscan sisters. To honor her father, Bertha took the religious name “Thea”, which means “of God”.

Sister Thea Bowman was an Educator, Evangelist, Singer, Writer, Missionary Disciple, Advocate for Cultural Awareness and Racial Harmony, and Civil Rights Advocate. She received a B.A. in English, Speech, and Drama (1965) from Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Sister Thea received her M.A. in English (1969) and her PH.D. in English Language, Literature, and Linguistics  (1972) from Catholic University of America. She was a co-founder of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, and the first African American woman to be awarded an honorary Doctorate in Religion by Boston College in Massachusetts (1989). Sister Thea Bowman was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) and when she was endorsed for sainthood, Sister Thea was still recognized as the first and only African American member of her order. Sister Thea wrote one of the three Prefaces to the African American Catholic Hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me (copyright 1987). Just to reiterate her reference to Malcolm X’s words about African spiritual and cultural gifts being brought to the American continent, the back cover of the American Mass Program says, “During its first two years of use, not a single note of An American Mass Program was written down. Father Rivers had composed the melodies originally for his own inspiration and enjoyment, but later used them to develop a program of active participation in the Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, Cincinnati.” Talk about gifts to the church!

Her prayer card includes the sentence, “Her prophetic witness continues to inspire us to share the Good News with those whom we encounter; most especially the poor, oppressed…”

Sister Thea’s FSPA community instructed her, “If you get, give—if you learn, teach.”

June 1, 2018 Sister Thea Bowman was declared Servant of God.

– Domoni Rouse
St. Rita Conference
Indianapolis, IN

Fr. Augustus Tolton

Black History Month Series – Father Tolton: How Persistence Propelled Him to Priesthood

Black History Month Series – Father Tolton: How Persistence Propelled Him to Priesthood 2048 1765 SVDP USA
Black History Month Series
Presented by the SVdP African American Task Force

Father Tolton: How Persistence Propelled Him to Priesthood

“Since the Bible says we ALL were made in the image and likeness of God, “Why isn’t my likeness accepted by others?” “Why aren’t there clergy that look like me?” “Am I inferior?”

These are some of the questions with which many Christian people of color wrestle.

I do not know if Augustus Tolton asked these questions, but I do know he did not allow others’ lack of appreciation for his race to prevent him from being faithful to his master’s call. Thankfully, rejection by society does not mean rejection by God.

Father Tolton came from a lineage of African Americans who had been enslaved. His grandparents Augustus and Maltida Chisley were enslaved by a Catholic family, the Mannings. When the Mannings purchased people as slaves, they had them baptized and instructed as Catholics.

The Chisleys had a daughter named Martha Jane. At 16 years old, Martha was given away as a wedding present (as a piece of property) to a Manning daughter, Susan. Susan married Stephen Elliot in 1849, and the couple with all their possessions moved to Missouri. Martha Jane Chisley would never see her parents again.

Martha Chisley’s new owners, the Elliots, lived adjacent to the Hagers, another Catholic, slave-owning plantation. On the Hagers’ plantation lived the slave Peter Paul Tolton. Martha and Peter married (they required their masters’ permission) and have several children. Their son Augustus was born April 1, 1854.

Life as a married slave was rough. Besides the endless work, the Toltons had the care of their children to worry them. Peter desired a way out of this inhumane life for his family. The thought of them all running away intrigued him but the reality of the brutal physical punishment that owners ordered when a slave was caught paralyzed him. Slave owners often organized groups to hunt people who ran away, with orders to shoot, maim (cut off a foot), or even kill any slave not in chains after night fall.

Tension in the United States around the subject of slavery was at an all-time high. As the nation entered into a civil war, many slaves began to escape to join the Union Army and fight for freedom. One was Peter Paul Tolton. Sadly, Peter and his family would never be reunited.

While Peter was fighting for freedom, Martha received word that the plantation owners might put her children up for sale. Her memories of being dislodged from her parents must have tormented her because she decided to risk her and her children’s lives and run away. By a series of miraculous events, Martha and her children evaded starvation, slave traders, and Confederate soldiers. With the direction of others, the Toltons reached Quincy, Illinois, where abolitionists welcomed and aided people escaping slavery. Martha Tolton found a family to move in with, and soon thereafter she began working at a tobacco factory, making cigars. Nine-year-old Augustus and his brother Charley worked at the factory too.

In Quincy, the Toltons began to attend St. Boniface Church. Most of the parishioners spoke German, so the homilies were in German. St. Boniface’s priest, Father Schaeffermeyer, would summarize in English the homilies for the small group of Black people who attended his parish. Martha sent Augustus to attend the St. Boniface School, at the time an all-white school. Between the bullying of classmates and their parents’ threatening letters to the priest, Augustus’ school life was unbearable. The cruelty from his peers would cause young Augustus to break down crying. Eventually Father Schaeffermeyer and Martha Tolton agreed that it was doing more harm than good having Augustus attend and withdrew him. It would be several years before he would go to school again.

Four years after the St. Boniface debacle, Augustus, then 14 years old and nicknamed Gus, reenrolled in school. This time he attended an all-Black school.

Mary also found the family a new church to attend, St. Lawrence. The pastor there was a strong-willed, determined Irishman, Peter McGirr. Father McGirr had heard about the St. Boniface incident and invited Gus to attend St. Lawrence School. He believed Gus needed a Catholic education and reassured Mary that he would personally see to it that her son would have no trouble from his classmates. Mary agreed to Father McGirr’s request. St. Lawrence School was run by the Notre Dame Sisters, and they saw to it that Gus experienced no trouble at the school.

Father McGriff received plenty of complaints from his parishioners. Like at St. Boniface, the parishioners threaten to remove their students and financial support from the parish. Father McGriff failed to give in to these ploys. Better yet, he responded with sermons about loving your neighbor as yourself. Eventually, the complaining stopped, and Gus began to flourish.

Gus Tolton was a devout young man. He learned the Latin Mass and began serving at daily Mass. Father McGriff and Gus discussed the possibility of him going into the priesthood. Unfortunately, there were no known Black priests in the United States. Several clergy members had shown interest in helping Gus get seminary training, including St. Boniface’s pastor, Father Schaeffermeyer. Though these clergymen’s financial support was noteworthy, Father McGriff couldn’t find one United States seminary that would be willing to accept a Black student. To me, here seems like a good place to give up, but that was not the case for the young Tolton or Father McGirr.

Under Father McGrirr’s directive, Tolton began to train unofficially. Different priests helped tutor the young man. Father McGirr never gave up on the idea of Tolton receiving an official seminarian experience. With the help of another priest, Father Richardt, Fr. McGrirr got Tolton accepted at the Propaganda Seminary in Rome, Italy. Tolton was thrilled!

On February 15, 1880, 25-year-old Gus Tolton left everything and everyone he knew to pursue his dream of being a priest. Nearly a month later, Tolton arrived in Rome. This moment must have been surreal to him. Everything he had endured in life had brought him to this place. Around seventy seminarians from around the world were part of his class. For once in his life, Tolton felt no racial discrimination.

With nothing holding him back, he excelled, and in 1883 he received the Catholic rite of Tonsure. This ceremony celebrated the seminarians’ willingness to become a slave of the people of God. No one may have known better than Tolton what this meant. Tolton also took the Propaganda Oath, pledging that he would be willing to go anywhere he was sent to propogate the faith. Most had believed that Tolton would be deployed to Africa. To his surprise, upon his ordination, he was told that he would be going back to the very place that had rejected him, the intolerant United States. Cardinal Simeoni made this decision and thrust onto Tolton the title “America’s First Black Priest.”

To say Tolton was disappointed with his deployment to the United States is an understatement. He knew the difficulties this decision would cause. Fresh in his memory had to be white Americans’ prejudice and persecution.   And he had to go serve them. Nonetheless, Tolton decided he was going to go back and serve all with the love of God.

On April 24, 1886, Father Augustus Tolton was ordained. Cardinal Simeoni made arrangements for Father Augustus to celebrate his first Mass in the great Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. On June 13, 1886, Father Tolton left Rome and headed back to his home country.

Back home Father Tolton was welcomed with a chorus of cheers from his supporters. Father McGirr had chartered a railroad car to take friends of all races to meet Father Tolton at the train station. Many clamored for Father’s blessing; he made sure to first bless his mother Martha, the woman whose Catholic faith had governed every aspect of his life.

Father Tolton was assigned to St. Joseph’s Church. He led a multiracial congregation and quite often at St. Joseph it was standing room only.  Father Tolton’s assignment left some furious, including Father Michael Weiss. Father Weiss was jealous of Father Tolton’s recognition and used racially charged words when referring to him. Father Weiss hated that white people were giving financially to Father Tolton’s ministry.  Father Weiss used his influence with the bishop to get the bishop to declare that Father Tolton could no longer minister to white people. Only people of color were permitted to attend his services. This decision was financially crippling to St. Joseph’s.

Eventually Father Tolton got transferred to St. Monica’s in Chicago, where he spent the rest of his days. Father Tolton rolled up his sash and got to work. He spent most of his time ministering to the marginalized.

Father Tolton died of heat stroke in 1897, at the tender age of 43. More than 100  priests attended his funeral. Like his services, it was standing room only. Many came to pay respect to the trail blazing, people loving priest from Quincy.

Father Tolton’s impact on American history is undoubtedly profound. His career paved the way for individuals like Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who was just appointed America’s first African American Catholic Cardinal.

Father Tolton’s story is truly inspiring because though he endured many challenges and hardships, he never relented. His ability to push past pain (emotional and physical) to his place of purpose was astonishing. He never gave up on his dream; he never gave up on God! As I learned about Augustus’s life, I couldn’t help but be captured by his and Father McGirr’s resolve.

One can only imagine how much further and what a bigger impact Fr. Tolton would have had if he had not encountered racism from his own Christian brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, this story does highlight the importance of having people in our lives that advocate for and mentor us. Several individuals in Father Tolton’s life joined themselves to him and accompanied him to his dream. We all need individuals that see our God-given gifts and help us find spaces and places to use them. We all should endeavor to seek those in need (and that are often ostracized) and find ways to propel them forward. This is the SVdP way!

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

    Skip to content