Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, after whom the annual Camp Tolton experience in Clarence takes its name, offers clear and precise inspiration to young people at every age.
“‘Father Gus’ is a good example of what young people can become if they study hard, pray hard, play hard and do the right thing,” Bishop Joseph N. Perry told the young participants in this year’s newly renamed Camp Tolton.
Bishop Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, is postulator of Fr. Tolton’s case for being declared a saint.
Bishop Perry visited Camp Tolton at Camp Jo’Ota in Clarence on July 27 and spoke to the children there.
Fr. Tolton was born into a family of enslaved people in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese.
“He was once a little slave boy who worked on a farm in Brush Creek, Missouri, who had a desire to become a priest,” Bishop Perry told the children.
Young Gus walked along a dirt road each day, carrying tools to work in the fields.
“He had no shoes to wear when he was a little boy. His feet were often tired, sore and bruised,” noted Bishop Perry, who is also Black and is a descendant of enslaved people.
He and his family spent every day laboring in the fields, receiving no pay for their work.
He couldn’t go to school. He didn’t know how to read, write or do simple arithmetic.
“When Gus did not have to work in the fields, he was often found in the church that was in Brush Creek in those days,” said Bishop Perry. “It was made out of log-cabin wood.”
That church eventually burned and was replaced by the stone church that stands there today.
“In church, Gus would humbly pray to God,” Bishop Perry noted. “He would learn how to sing. He learned how to hear the priest praying the prayers at Mass.”
Fr. Tolton’s father, Peter Paul Tolton, escaped from Brush Creek in 1863 to join the Union Army and fight against slavery in the Civil War.
His mother, Martha Jane Tolton, was afraid that she and her three children, including a baby, would be sold and split up.
“So she decided to run away from the farm,” said Bishop Perry.
She and her children walked quietly through the fields at night and hid during the day, fearing that they would be caught and sent back into slavery.
“You can imagine his mom holding a baby in her arms at night and hiding during the day,” said Bishop Perry.
What little food they could find came from fields, trees and shrubs. They drank from creeks and brooks.
Some people along the way helped them hide and move along safely.
“After they were walking for days and having little to eat, some soldiers led Gus’s mom to an old boat on the shore of the mighty Mississippi River,” said Bishop Perry.
“She put her children inside the boat and she began to row across the river to get to the state of Illinois, where Black people didn’t have to work the fields, farms and farm animals and not get paid for it,” the bishop said.
They settled in Quincy, Illinois, with its sizable Catholic population and significant number of people who had escaped slavery.
Mrs. Tolton tried to enroll her son in a local Catholic school.
“But there was a problem,” said Bishop Perry. “Some children wanted Gus at the school and others did not. Some people wanted Gus at their church. Some did not.
“At school, some children called Gus names and threw rocks at him,” the bishop continued. “Some people did not like Gus because his skin was black.”
He later found a better welcome at St. Peter School in Quincy.
The pastor, Father McGurr, welcomed him, as did the sisters who taught at the school.
“He learned to read and write,” Bishop Perry said. “And he could even sit in the front row of the church, along with the other kids, and the people seemed not to care about the color of his skin.”
The more young Gus thought about what he wanted to be when he grew up, the more he thought about people like Fr. McGurr.
He wanted to help other people get closer to God.
“He became an altar boy, helping the priest at the altar and carrying the big cross,” said Bishop Perry.
He caught up with his classmates and graduated from eighth grade with them.
He even helped teach the other children in the neighborhood about their faith, how to pray and how to read the Bible.
“A father in faith”
Several priests tried to help this devoted young man enroll in a seminary, where he could find out if God was calling him to be a priest.
“But in those days, no school for priests would accept a Black boy,” Bishop Perry told the children.
Several Franciscan friars in Quincy wrote letters to Rome to find out if Fr. Tolton could study for the Priesthood there.
“After some time, Gus received a letter saying that he could go to Rome,” said Bishop Perry. “So he packed up his things, dressed up in his suit and tie and said goodbye to his mother and sister and his little brother.”
He prepared for Priesthood for six years at the Urban College in Rome.
“He then became a priest the day before Easter with his class,” said Bishop Perry. “All kinds of new, young priests — white priests, Black priests, brown priests and so-forth — were ordained on that day in April of 1886.”
Upon being sent back to Quincy, he became the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
“This young man, this young boy from Brush Creek, Missouri, came back to his hometown in Quincy to be a father in faith for all Catholics who happen to be of dark skin color,” the bishop stated.
Priestly life was beautiful but sometimes hard for him.
“Some people did not like that he was a priest — a Black priest — and told others to stay away from Fr. Tolton’s church,” the bishop said.
After several years in Quincy, Fr. Gus was invited by the archbishop of Chicago to minister to the growing population of Black Catholics there.
Fr. Tolton helped establish St. Monica Catholic Church.
“Every race of people could come to Fr. Gus’s church,” said Bishop Perry. “All people could sit and kneel and pray and receive Holy Communion.”
Fr. Tolton became known for preaching great sermons, hearing people’s confessions, celebrating funerals for people who died, distributing food and clothing, and trying to find shelter for the poor.
“Fr. Gus wanted to help make our country a better place where all people can feel at home in our Church, regardless of who they are,” said Bishop Perry.
There again, some people called him names and were unkind to him.
“But Fr. Gus never said anything bad back to anyone,” said Bishop Perry. “He only showed people kindness.
“He taught them how we all should treat one another as brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus,” he said.
Fr. Tolton died of heatstroke in 105-degree weather while walking from a train station to his rectory in July 1897. He was 43.
The Chicago archdiocese in 2010 got permission from the Vatican to open a formal investigation into whether Fr. Tolton should be declared a saint.
“I believe we’re getting closer to that day when we can celebrate Mass and honor Fr. Gus at the altar for living a life as Jesus would want us to live,” said Bishop Perry.
“A generous and Christian person like Augustus Tolton shows us how we should always respect one another as human beings created by the love of God,” he said.
“A welcoming home”
Fr. Tolton is now remembered as a Christian and pioneer in helping people get along with one another “and making sure the Church, as founded by our Lord Jesus, is a welcoming home for everybody.”
He gave proof of heroic virtue in that he did not return hate for hate or evil for evil.
“He didn’t throw back to others what was thrown at him,” said Bishop Perry. “At the end of his life, despite all he had been put through, his faith and his hope and his love were found to be intact.”
Bishop Perry encouraged the children to be like Fr. Tolton, studying hard and persevering in whatever they believe God is calling them to become.
“God is smiling on each of you!” he said.
The bishop then led them in the prayer for Fr. Tolton’s canonization, and blessed their rosaries.