Rising Above, by Mary A. Osborne

From slavery to the priesthood

Suspended in the gossamer realm of dreams, beyond the bounds of physicality, you might fly birdlike through the nighttime sky, rising weightless as a spirit, alighting on a star. The memory flutters like a moth before fading in the rosy light of dawn as you awaken and descend, once more beholden to the law of gravity. Conceived by Einstein as a curve, or warping, in the fabric of spacetime, the universal force of attraction pulls us towards the center of the earth and keeps us from floating up into the blue. Only The Hanged Man, the mysterious twelfth card of the ancient tarot deck,1 can resist the compelling force that renders us earthbound.

One foot tied to a rope, the haloed figure hangs head down from a Saint Anthony’s T-shaped cross hewn of wood sprouting leaves of green. His predicament appears dire, yet The Hanged Man is fully alive, an active participant in humanity through the trials and indignities he patiently endures. Martyrdom is implied even as his countenance conveys an attitude of calm detachment in face of suffering. His inverted position—feet oriented toward the heavens—is a reflection of his chosen state of being more than punishment. Truth be told, it’s not the executioner’s rope but the allure of the Celestial City that draws him up to the sky, closer to the angels, while he still lives out his mortal life in the terrestrial world below.

The Hanged Man, or Woman, might be a saint, or even an ordinary pious person like Job, tested time and again, enduring physical torment, losing possessions and loved ones but maintaining an unceasing state of hopefulness and unshakable trust in the unseen. Arising as a light in the darkness, his deep state of knowing is a great gift of revelation that burns from within, illuminating unseen realities. Heart humbled by his encounter with the sacred, he has cast off his cloak of self-importance and crown of megalomania. He cannot be seduced by the promise of transient riches, worldly power or fame, for the upside-down man, with his great love for humanity, means to carry the suffering of his brothers and sisters all the long way to the grave.

The Hanged Man’s profound awareness inevitably leads to acts of charity in the greater community and, on rare occasion, to seismic works that shatter established social orders. Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King are pivotal figures who blazed through life like comets, upending social norms by honoring the value of all people and sacrificing earthly rewards for the greater good of humankind. Alongside and upside down with them is Father Augustus Tolton (1854–1897), who dedicated his life to civil rights and the gospel teachings in the city of Chicago. 

Born a slave in Missouri, the Venerable Tolton emerged from the ashes of the American Civil War during the upheaval of Reconstruction as the country grappled with its disgraceful history of Black servitude. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but the promised end of slavery arrived over time, with enforcement in Texas finally celebrated on June 19, 1865. Even then, without the support of a cohesive national strategy, freed slaves lacked the educational, political, and social opportunities they needed to overcome poverty and discrimination. Slavery may have been abolished, but Jim Crow laws would make train cars, restaurants, theaters, and bathrooms off limits to African Americans for another hundred years.

In 1863, seeking the promised equality that existed nowhere, Tolton’s widowed mother and her three children fled the Elliot plantation in Brush Creek, Missouri. Martha Tolton had gathered her courage when she learned that her family would be broken up and sold off to pay their owner’s debts. In the dark of night they slipped through twenty miles of woods and prairie before being accosted by Confederate soldiers along the bank of the Mississippi River. By a stroke of luck, or an act of grace, Union Soldiers were nearby; they claimed the shore as federal ground and found the family a dilapidated old boat. Martha had never rowed before, but she managed to reach the Illinois side even as Confederates fired from the shore.

The refugees trudged twenty-one miles farther to Quincy, Illinois, a stop on the Underground Railroad. In a state where slavery was illegal, Quincy’s community of free Blacks guided the Toltons and helped Martha find work cleaning homes. At the same time, the city’s notion of freedom meant that nine year-old Augustus would be denied an education. As a child on the plantation, he had been baptized and educated in the Catholic faith, but at St. Boniface Catholic School, where he was briefly enrolled, fellow students protested his mere presence, mocked his accent, and called him names while belligerent parents threatened to withdraw their financial support. Yielding to intimidation, Mrs. Tolton withdrew her son from the school. Besides, Augustus had to help support his family by working at the tobacco factory stripping stems from dried, sticky leaves for six dollars a week.3

The Toltons moved on from St. Boniface to nearby St. Peter’s parish and school, where there was more sympathy for the child who could often be found praying alone in church. Nuns and priests tutored Augustus, teaching him to read and write, while Father Peter McGirr took note of the boy’s gentle spirit, talent, and love for learning. The red-haired Irish priest, who had fled County Tyrone during the Potato Famine, understood the body of Christ as unity and oneness—a church composed of members of all races and walks of life. Father McGirr preached kindness, evoking the parable of the Good Samaritan and insisting the Black student be permitted to enroll at St. Peter School. White students would continue their taunts, but Augustus attended classes during the winter months, when the tobacco factory was closed.4

At the age of sixteen, Augustus was confirmed in St. Peter Church and received his First Communion. By the time he graduated from the school at age eighteen in 1872, he had heard the silent but distinct call to the priesthood—a tug on his sleeve from the heavens. He prepared for the seminary by studying Latin, Greek, ancient and modern history, geography and philosophy. Father McGirr and two other priests helped Augustus apply to numerous institutions, writing letters on his behalf and stressing his fluency in Latin. But not one seminary in the entire country would admit a Black man. 

With a holy vision that refused to fade in face of overwhelming refusal, Augustus carried on, furthering his education at St. Francis Solano College in Quincy. After he enrolled in 1878, students from Missouri threatened to leave but ultimately stayed to witness the Black student quietly excel and become a leader at the school. During this time period, he was also working steadily at a bottling company, helping to found Saint Joseph School for Black children, teaching catechism classes, attending and serving at Mass, sometimes at two churches a day.5 After years of sustained efforts, the day came when Augustus received notice of his admission to the Pontifical Urban College in Rome, sponsored by the Propagation of Faith and established for the purpose of training future missionaries to evangelize people around the globe. On February 21, 1880, with sixty dollars in his pocket and the well wishes of family and friends, twenty-five year-old Augustus boarded a ship bound for Le Havre, France.6 From France, he continued on to Rome, where the popes had long since publicly denounced slavery even if many others remained deaf to the inclusive teaching of the Church.

Like his classmates, Augustus dressed in a black cassock with red sash and black biretta with red tassel and was, during that merciful time, just another seminarian. Called “Gus” by his fellow students, he learned the liturgical ceremonies, mastered the accordion, and played spirituals for his friends, cultivated his beautiful singing voice, became fluent in Italian. Commended by his superiors as self-effacing, pious, capable, and industrious,7 his greatest aim was to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles and share the Good News. Six years later, in 1886, Augustus Tolton was ordained as the first identified Black Roman Catholic priest from the United States.8 Departing Rome, the young man who was born into captivity set forth to save his people and persevere faithful to the end.

Father Tolton would not be sent on a mission to Africa, as he had anticipated. Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, thought it was high time for America—the country that professed Enlightenment ideals of equality and tolerance—to receive its first Black priest.9 Given the climate of racial tension, few thought Father Tolton could actually succeed in the United States. Nevertheless, he was assigned to serve at St. Joseph Catholic Church in his hometown of Quincy. 

A cheering crowd, brass band, and decorated carriage drawn by four white horses greeted the new priest upon his jubilant return. He said his first Mass at St. Boniface Church, where he had once been scorned for his race and where now both whites and Blacks turned out en masse to hear the novelty that was Father Gus. At St. Joseph Church, he quickly established a purposeful routine, held daily Masses, offered religious instruction, wrote heartfelt homilies, and visited the infirm. It was never his intention, but the selfless pastor who radiated love for others began to attract members from the city’s white congregations.

The integration that began to naturally occur within the parish did not sit well with everyone in Quincy. Having been tasked with evangelizing Blacks, not whites, Father Tolton provoked the resentments of other priests, particularly Father Michael Weis, who was losing members as well as donations to St. Joseph’s. Father Weis made it painfully clear with cutting words and racial slurs that the Black priest was not welcome and he tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure Father Tolton to turn away the white worshippers. Persecuted, demeaned, and unable to speak out, the young priest was relieved when he was eventually reassigned to Chicago, where a growing community of Black Catholics desperately needed one of their own to lead them. Father Gus, who saw himself as a priest to all, wished only blessings upon the many good people of Quincy and remembered, in his parting letter of gratitude, “the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church.”10

In 1889, answering the next call to serve, Father Tolton found himself on the South Side of Chicago in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. The humble meeting place was designated for members of the sub-parish, St. Augustine’s Society, named for the great African saint Augustine of Hippo. Here Father Gus celebrated Mass with his parishioners—Black Catholics, new arrivals from the South, beneficiaries of the society’s charity, and those who were unwelcome elsewhere. Living in poverty with his struggling people, receiving no salary, housed in a sparsely furnished rectory on 36th Street, the benevolent priest imparted a crucial message of hope. Along with his pastoral duties, he was charged with establishing St. Monica’s Colored Roman Catholic Church, which began as a storefront in 1891.

Securing funding for the construction of St. Monica would prove burdensome, but Father Tolton never lost sight of his first priority, which would always be serving his struggling parishioners. He ministered to people in their homes, appealed to charities on their behalf for basic needs of food and clothing, organized religious classes for adults, celebrated the sacraments, and proclaimed the mystery of Jesus Christ. As Father Gus wore himself out to the detriment of his health, his parish expanded from thirty parishioners to six hundred. With panoptic vision that perceived a greater glory beyond, he continually affirmed Christ’s gift of salvation—the audacious promise of deliverance from this mortal world, God’s extraordinary gift to all people, regardless of gender or race. 

Father Tolton’s self-sacrificing zeal drew the attention of the church hierarchy but not the funding he needed to build his church or to send more Black men to the college in Rome, as he aspired to do. He was praised for his character and for the work he was doing, and at the same time he was left, by and large, to his own devices among the poor. There were exceptions, such as the philanthropist and religious sister Mother Katherine Drexel, who gave generously to help build St. Monica’s. The overworked priest did all he could to raise revenue for his parish, sometimes traveling across the country for paid speaking engagements, which also served to raise awareness about the plight of his people. 

On July 9, 1897, Father Tolton was traveling back to Chicago by train from a priests’ retreat in Bourbonnais, Illinois. When he arrived, the city was in the midst of an intense heat wave with a temperature of 105 degrees. He was walking from the station en route to his home and planning to visit several parishioners on the way when he collapsed on the sidewalk at 36th Street and Ellis Avenue. Passersby pulled the ailing priest into the shade beneath a tree before he was transported to Mercy Hospital, where he died of heat stroke with his mother and sister by his side. Father Tolton was forty-three years old.  

Over one thousand mourners came to pay their respects to the beloved priest. Father Tolton’s lifetime of selfless giving—wholly irrational in light of the discrimination he endured—stands as an olive branch amid the ruble of our nation’s troubled past. Pope Francis recently advanced the cause for his canonization, changing his status from “Servant of God Augustus Tolton” to “Venerable Augustus Tolton.” The Church follows canonical procedure when determining if a Catholic will be declared a saint, united with God in heaven and present to the living as an intercessory to the Divine. A miracle must be attributed to a “Venerable” person for beatification to occur, but Father Tolton already stands near as a martyr and guide, illuminating the mystery of weightlessness.

From old photographs he gazes out with poignant expression, forever abounding in hope and faith even as freedom for all is not yet won, even as the precious freedoms we now hold are recklessly asserted. We alienate one another with divisive speech, abandon moral constraints, ignore social conscience. Taken at the expense of our neighbors, these so-called liberties can only lead to increasing confinement—or to what Christians call a state of sin, a transgression of divine law that leads us away from the fullest expression of ourselves and from the perfectly free and expansive state of our heavenly home.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13-14). Our hopes for a better future are pinned on the powerful, but the martyrs and victims—the holy ones who respond to the poor, the voiceless, the disenfranchised, and to the crucified planet itself—have long been doing the daily work of saving the world. We travel low to the ground in our tellurian toil, but when we lift up our heads to look closely at our neighbors and see beyond the delusion of otherness, we grow lighter, hovering above ground. We rise above, overcoming the force of gravity on Earth, as did our nation’s first Black priest. ◆

1 Originating in the 15th century Italy for use in a game of trick taking, tarot cards are imbued with Christian symbolism. The present day use of the cards for divination is unrelated to the medieval tarot and this essay.

2 Bauer, Father Roy, They Called Him Father Gus: The life and times of Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest in the U.S.A. p. 4. https://catholicnewsherald.com/images/stories/News_Local18/Father_Gus.pdf.

3 Duriga, Joyce, Augustus Tolton: The Church Is the True Liberator. Liturgical Press, 2018,  6. 

4 Bauer, 7.

5 Ibid, 9.

6 Duriga, 14.

7 Ibid, 30, 36.

8 James Healy (1830-1900) was the first known Black, native-born American ordained as a priest, but he did not publicize his heritage. Light-skinned, he passed for and identified as white, as did his two brothers, who also became priests.

9 Perry, Bishop Joseph N. “Biography – Augustus Tolton.” Tolton.archchicago.org, Archdiocese of Chicago, tolton.archchicago.org/about/biography. Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.

10 Duriga, 52.

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.