Fr. Tolton’s life to be etched in stone outside Quincy, Ill., church

Highlights include his escape from slavery in Missouri and his becoming the Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the U.S.


Depicted on one side of the river are two wrists in shackles.

On the other is a dove, free and at peace.

Together, they will adorn one of nine marble plaques symbolizing important moments in the life of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton.

The plaques will be installed this spring on an outside wall of St. Peter Church in Quincy, Illinois, next to the stairs that schoolchildren descend each day on their way to lunch.

“They’ll see it every day,” said local artist Tim Haubrich, who designed all nine of the artworks. “We’ll be instilling Fr. Tolton’s memory in all of the schoolchildren.”

Fr. Tolton (1854-97), the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States, likely will be declared a saint someday.

St. Peter Parish is renowned for its role in welcoming him and his family from slavery to freedom.

“It’s a point of pride for us to have been his home parish,” said Monsignor Leo Enlow, pastor of the parish. “My vision is that once he’s canonized, you’re going to have a lot of pilgrims coming to Quincy to view not only his statue but also this display of his life.”

From slave to priest

Fr. Tolton was born into a family of slaves in Northeastern Missouri and baptized into the Catholic Church in Brush Creek a few years before the Civil War broke out.

He escaped as a child into Illinois with his mother and two siblings, while the war that would claim his father’s life was still raging.

The family remained Catholic, and young Augustus gradually become aware of his priestly calling.

No seminary in the United States would accept him.

He persevered with help from God, his family, local priests, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Franciscan friars in Quincy, Illinois, and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome.

“I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word,” Fr. Tolton later proclaimed.

“It was through the direction of a (School) Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church,” he added.

Ordained to the Holy Priesthood in Rome inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1886, he was sent back to Quincy as a missionary to his homeland.

He ministered with profound grace and weathered many difficulties before being reassigned to Chicago.

There, he served as pastor to some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals until he died of heatstroke and exhaustion at age 43.

The cause for declaring him a saint is now well under way, and devotion to his memory continues to spread.

Priestly people

The current St. Peter Church was completed in 1961. A few years ago, it needed some shoring up on the side facing the school.

The nine metal plates that restored structural integrity also opened a door to inspiration.

Msgr. Enlow believes that inspiration came from the late Father Roy Bauer, who served for many years as pastor at St. Peter.

As a young priest stationed in Springfield, Ill., Fr. Bauer helped Msgr. Enlow recognize his own vocation.

“I still blame him for my Priesthood!” Msgr. Enlow recalled with delight. “He was the cause of it — other than the grace of God.”

Later, as pastor of a group of country parishes in the Springfield diocese, Fr. Bauer mentored Msgr. Enlow during his transitional deacon year.

“As far as I am concerned, he’s a saint,” said Msgr. Enlow.

Fr. Bauer was an avid historian and promoter of Fr. Tolton’s legacy.

He helped gather information for the sainthood cause and wrote several books, including They Called Him Father Gus: The Life and Times of Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest in the U.S.A.

Life and times

Mr. Haubrich, a local artist and longtime St. Peter parishioner, created the designs for all nine Fr. Tolton plaques.

He based them in large part on Fr. Bauer’s books and personal recollections.

As Owner and Art Director for Sunday Missal Service, which publishes Pray Together missalettes as well as church bulletins, Mr. Haubrich knew Fr. Bauer for years as a pastor and later as an editorial contributor and friend.

 “What a guy!” said Mr. Haubrich. “He’s where I learned about Fr. Tolton.”

Mr. Haubrich’s wife and children all went to St. Peter School, and now he has a grandson in kindergarten there as well.

 “I can’t wait until he’s a bit older and will be able to understand,” he said.

The panels Mr. Haubrich designed are rich with symbolism:

  • a depiction of Fr. Tolton’s parents’ wedding rings, a cross and the baptismal font in Brush Creek;
  • an illustration of the escape from Missouri to Illinois by rowboat across the Mississippi River;
  • a young Augustine’s arrival at the old St. Peter Church at Eighth and Main streets in Quincy;
  • a representation of Fr. Tolton’s time as a seminarian in Rome and his priestly ordination in St. John Lateran Basilica;
  • the former St. Joseph Mission in Quincy, where Fr. Tolton was first assigned, along with the mission’s patron saint;
  • a representation of his move to Chicago and the early construction of St. Monica Church there;
  • captioned, “Requiescat in Pace,” the solemn procession of Fr. Tolton’s earthly remains back to Quincy after his death; and
  • a portrait of Fr. Tolton and his statement, “The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both.”

“True to his calling”

“Art has been in my blood forever,” said Mr. Haubrich, who graduated from Benedictine College with a degree in Art as well as a semester at the Kansas City Art Institute.

He created some of the Fr. Tolton illustrations by hand and incorporated photos and other elements by computer.

His image of the Lateran Cathedral was taken during his own pilgrimage to Rome.

“I’m so proud of Tim’s artistic talent, and it is reflected in the panels,” said Msgr. Enlow.

The priest believes the project will offer hope in the face of human weakness and reinforce the inalienable truth that God created all people in His own image and likeness.

It will also be a call to unconditional fidelity.

“In spite of the racism Fr. Tolton experienced, he stayed true to his calling to still serve Christ and His Church,” Msgr. Enlow noted.

“He was first a human who suffered from the prejudice of people, whether Christian or not,” Msgr. Enlow continued. “He was a priest who experienced the humanity of the Church with all of its imperfections and flaws.

“We pray that he is now a saint who will pray for us and intercede for us,” he said.