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Monday, October 4, 2010

Book Review - From Slave to Priest

I just finished the book From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), The First Black Priest of the United States, by Sr. Caroline Hemesath. This was the second printing of the book, originally published in 1973.

Using a wide variety of resources, Sr. Hemesath was able to write this biography of Fr. Augustine Tolton, the first black priest in the US. (NOTE: She used some imaginative recreations in writing parts of this book, but all of her writing was based on the solid research from the many resources & people she spoke to.) I did notice that a few of the dates were off here & there, but chalked it up to different interpretations of the same events by different people.

Augustine Tolton was born on April 1, 1854 to Peter Paul Tolton & Martha Jane Chisley, a slave couple in Missouri. Both were baptized, raised as Catholic slaves, & married in the local Catholic Church. With the advent of the Civil War, they vowed that their children must not grow up as slaves. Peter escaped to join the northern army in the fight against slavery. While he was away, tension continued to grow in the south & Mary feared for their lives. She decided to escape with her three children - Charly (age 8), Augustine (age 7), & Anne (22 months). They arrived in the free state of Illinois, settling in Quincy, a place referred to as a "refuge for blacks."

From a very early age, Augustine knew he wanted to be a priest. However, as a black Catholic at the end of the Civil War, he faced many difficulties. Even though blacks were now "free," there was still much prejudice & shunning, even in the northern areas of the US. Surprisingly, much of the opposition he encountered came from within the Catholic Church. While he did have numerous priests willing to help & teach him, it was still many years before his dream of becoming a priest was finally realized - by going all the way to Rome.

Even after becoming a priest, though, there were still many obstacles & prejudices he had to endure. This book details those struggles & triumphs of his short life. He died at the age of 47, having been a priest for less than 12 years.

Fr. Tolton was a bright student, a hard worker, & wholly devoted to the Church. Sr. Hemesath's description of him as a priest & a man makes me want to have been a part of his congregation or one of his students. She mentions that he had a way with words, a beautiful singing voice, & a strong love of the Faith that was visible to all who knew him. Fr. Tolton is summed up in the words of a small child to his mother when they passed Father on the street..."See, there goes Jesus." (pg. 180) We should be able to say that of ALL priests!

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Stop by today & be sure to check out their great selection of Baptism gifts.