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The National Black Catholic Congress

From Slave To Priest
The Inspirational Story of Fr. Augustine Tolton


As the first black Catholic priest of the United States, Fr. Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) was born into slavery and conquered almost insurmountable odds to become a Catholic priest. He was refused at every American Catholic seminary because of this race, and ultimately received his theological training in Rome, where he was ordained.

Though he died an early death at age 43, Fr. Tolton left behind a shining legacy of holy service to God and his people. He was the pastor of St. Monica's Church in Chicago, and established a center which was the focal point for the life of black Catholics in Chicago for 30 years.

The author, Sr. Caroline Hemesath, interviewed many who know Fr. Tolton personally - including St. Katherine Drexel - and puts forth a deeply inspiring portrait of this great American Catholic.

Inspiring biography of first black slave-turned-Catholic-priest re-released by Ignatius Press

Born into a black Catholic slave family in 1854, Fr. Augustine Tolton conquered almost insurmountable odds to eventually become the first black Catholic priest in the U.S.

Ignatius Press' new edition of Fr. Tolton's biography, From Slave To Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (by Sister Caroline Hemesath, SSF) reacquaints the modern world with this great priest, and details the incredible struggle for equality and acceptance faced by black Catholics in the mid- 19th century. The new edition includes a powerful Foreword by acclaimed black Catholic Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, who hosts the EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) series on male spirituality, "Behold the Man."

The scholarly research and inspirational life-account by Sr. Caroline Hemesath, SSF (who was a member of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa) presents the great and true story of this first Black priest in the U.S., and his courage in the face of incredible prejudice. The author interviewed many people who knew Fr. Tolton personally, including St. Katherine Drexel.

From Slave To Priest is a source of strength and encouragement for present-day Christians, including black Catholics who sometimes still encounter intolerance. Fr. Tolton faced a unique source of prejudice: an opposition from within part of the Church - the one institution he should have been able to rely on for compassion and support.

As well-loved pastor of St. Monica's Church in Chicago, Fr. Tolton was only a priest for 11 years, and died at the early age of 43. But he left an unparalleled legacy of holy service to God and the Catholic Church. He endured slavery, abject poverty, and what was to him a mysterious exclusion from American Catholic seminaries. Several priests and nuns, however, helped him to receive his priestly education, and ordination, in Rome.

"God … gave him the strength to exercise his priestly ministry under the weighty yoke of racism," says Burke-Sivers. "He was a beacon of hope to black Catholics in the nineteenth century who were trying to find a home in the American Church."

"He endured years of frustration, humiliation, and rejection in a country boasting openness to religious freedom and tolerance," continues Burke-Sivers. "The life of Fr. Tolton is a study in faithful obedience," he says, "since the Vatican assigned Fr. Tolton to serve as a missionary priest in the United States, where he was once a slave, an outcast, a hated black. He obeyed in faith …not the faith of blind obedience … but in complete humility and generosity."

But the greatest legacy of Fr. Tolton was really not that he was the first black American priest. It was that "he loved and served the Lord with great fervor and intensity," says Burke-Sivers. "He was a living testimony to God's creative, life-giving work."

Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Formerly Collegium Propaganda Fide, which educated Fr. Tolton) says, "...Fr. Tolton is certainly an inspiring example of courage and determination in today's Church, for all of us called to respond to God's vocation to holiness, and especially those called to the priesthood and religious life. I am sure this book will contribute to making known his witness to unwavering fidelity to Christ: a legacy not only for the American Church, but also for all modern Christians, who face persecution for their faith..."

And Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali adds, "While the Civil War ended slavery, it only began the struggle for racial equality. Tolton's fervent vocational commitment was constantly challenged by prejudice, but he also experienced strong support. His brief priestly ministry was marred by prejudice, yet showed the power of God by the acceptance of both black and white faithful. Tolton's perseverance in his vocational commitment is an inspiring lesson for us all."

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, former head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, "The life of this holy hero has inspired me since my childhood. …This is a life that for all its accomplishments on behalf of a specific minority, imitates closely that life of our Lord Himself … I urge young Catholics to read the book and learn from Fr. Tolton just how much a life can mean, and how much God can accomplish through us if we are willing."

San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, founded in 1978, is one of the largest Catholic publishers in the world. Ignatius Press is the primary English-language publisher of Pope Benedict XVI's books. It is likewise dedicated to publishing and distributing genuine information on the Catholic faith, and publishes over 40 books each year (with over 1,500 titles in print). Its author-roster includes some of the foremost names in the Catholic Church. Ignatius is also the publisher of Catholic World Report and Homiletic & Pastoral Review magazines. Ordering can be done through:, or by calling: 1-800-651-1531..

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