Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: From Slave to Priest -- Fr. Augustine Tolton

Thirty-seven years ago, Sr. Caroline Hemesath (OSF), wrote a biography of the very first African-American priest in the United States.  In 2006, Ignatius republished this book and it is as timely to read now as it was when Hemesath published it in 1973.  From Slave to Priest: A biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton, the first Black priest of the United States is an amazing read.

This biography tells the true story (based on letters, diaries, newspaper accounts and historical research) of Fr. Augustine Tolton.  Tolton, born in 1854, the second of three children, started life in a slave shack in Missouri to Catholic slave parents.  His father, desperate to improve the lives of his wife and children, went off to fight for the Union in the American Civil War, sacrificing his life on the battlefield.  Mrs. Tolton, afraid that the War (and slavery) would never end, bundled her children and escaped across the Mississippi to freedom in Illinois. 

At age 7, Augustine, his 8 year old brother Charley, and their 20-month old sister were free in name ... but the discrimination for their skin color last far longer.  Martha Jane Tolton, provided a home for her children, working hard all day to keep food on the table in "freedom" --  a shanty shack shared with another widowed woman and her child in Quincy, Illinois.  Augustine and his brother and mother worked long hours in a tobacco factory for what little money they could bring home; eventually, this small amount was lessened when always-sickly Charley caught pneumonia and died at the age of 10.  Augustine and his mother kept working.

Mrs. Tolton, illiterate herself but knowing her catechism and 10 Commandments, worked hard to ensure her remaining two children would learn ... both book-learning and their Catholic faith.  Attending the German Church, St. Boniface, with it's sympathetic pastor Fr. Schaeffermeyer, allowed the small family to increase their learning ... both book and faith wise!

It seems, Augustine had an early propensity for learning -- quickly picking up German and learning to read and write in both English and German.  He soon became the protege of the pastor and others ... but also the target for those "Catholics" who didn't like African Americans sharing their faith.

The book goes on to detail Augustine Tolton's persistence in doing the will of God -- to become a priest -- even though NO seminary in the United States would accept his application to study.  Tolton's story of diligence, perseverance and seeking/finding help from those willing to help, finally allow Tolton to receive seminary training in Rome at the Pontifical Seminary.

But, discrimination, hatred and abuse are never far from Tolton's life, even as a Catholic priest.  And yet, Tolton, knowing that Jesus suffered and died for us, willingly dealt with these horrors to pastor his flock in Quincy and Chicago.

Hemesath does a wonderful job of detailing the ups and downs of such a life -- being neither overly dramatic nor glossing over the despicableness of the actions of some.  The book reads like a novel, helping the reader to live the life Tolton must have lived, to experience the fears with the growing faith, to cheer with the successes and rebel against the discrimination.

This is a great book to read for celebrating the underdog, for embracing the good/bad/ugly of our Country's past, for reveling in the ability of God to make good out of bad.  I will have my 6th grader read this one for Black History month this year -- to help him see that good can win, that struggles and hardship for a good cause are worth it in the end, and to revel in the strength of one man's faith in God's will.

This book was received for review as part of the Catholic Company's reviewer program.  The opinions expressed in this review are my honest view of this work.  For further information about From Slave to Priest, or any other items from the Catholic Company, please visit their site.

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