Finally, 1880, he was accepted to study in Rome – where it was assumed he would train to become a missionary in Africa. Augustus studied African languages and cultures for six years in Rome.
Then, on the night before his ordination, the plan changed unexpectedly. He was told he would be ordained as a priest for the United States.
The Italian Cardinal Simeoni told him: “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor.”
“If the United States has never before seen a black priest,” the cardinal said, “it must see one now!”
Bishop Perry explained that in the town of Quincy, where Fr. Tolton was sent back after his ordination, “racial separation was the norm at the time.”
“There were three Catholic churches – a German one, an Irish one, and one that they began for blacks.”
Many churches of the time did not allow blacks to receive Communion at Mass in a “white” church, where they would be segregated to the balcony.
“A lot of them didn't go to Communion at all,” Bishop Perry recalled. “It was not allowed, to kneel at the Communion railing next to a white person. If there wasn't a balcony, most churches had a roped off section with a few pews for blacks to sit in.”
“It's contrary to everything the Gospel stands for,” the bishop stated. “But racial separation was taken practically as a religion in itself.”
Amid this environment of reflexive racism, Fr. Augustus was charged with preaching the Gospel.
“Some folks thought whites, even though they were Catholic, should have nothing to do with his church,” Bishop Perry recounted. “Other whites went to his Masses – they found him an attractive speaker and preacher, and went to him for Confession.”
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“A priest in a German parish told him, in no uncertain terms, that he should restrict himself to the blacks. He took his complaint to the local bishop – and was reprimanded.”
“Fr. Tolton responded by saying that the Church is open to everyone, and we shouldn't tell anyone they can't come in. He was told that if he could not obey, it was best that he leave town.”
After a subsequent dispute, which forced him to do so, he found that a group of black Catholics in Chicago – who worshiped in a church basement – also needed a pastor.
The Archbishop of Chicago welcomed him. But, as Bishop Perry noted, Fr. Tolton's new ministry was “largely confined to the south side of the city – the tenement houses, and the rather poor area occupied by freed blacks and escaped slaves.”
Fr. Tolton died of heat stroke, at the age of 43, in 1897. By that time, however, he had already become a revered leader of the black Catholic community in Chicago.
Some of the descendants of his former parishioners have volunteered their testimony to Bishop Perry, recounting family stories of encounters with the beloved priest who was known as “Father Gus.”