Born into slavery, ‘Good Father Gus’
fought to free souls
Chicago, Ill. – Catholic Extension will award $21,293 to the Diocese of Jefferson City to repair and maintain historic St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, Missouri, where Father Augustine Tolton, a former slave who became the Catholic Church’s first African-American priest in the United States, was baptized 156 years ago.
Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago announced he was beginning the process whereby Father Tolton’s life and work will be examined for consideration of beatification and canonization. At the end of this process the Catholic Church would officially recognize Father Tolton as a saint. “Father Augustine’s story reminds us of the truth that is also at the heart of Catholic Extension’s work: the greatest among us emerge from the least-expected places,” said Joseph Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management for Catholic Extension. “Our grant to St. Peter will enable the Diocese of Jefferson City to preserve the rich legacy of America’s first African-American priest, so that Father Tolton’s story can continue to be shared among Catholics and give hope to communities that face immense social and economic challenges today.”
Born into slavery in Brush Creek in 1854, Father Tolton was baptized into the Catholic faith by his “owners,” the Elliott family, and attended church at St. Peter until he escaped to the free state of Illinois during the Civil War. There, he began to discern his priestly vocation but, denied access to seminaries in the United States, he pursued his education at the Urban College in Rome.
After ordination in 1886, he returned to the United States. Despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of Chicago’s most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and black Catholic communities. He died at 43, and is buried in Quincy, Illinois.
The tiny St. Peter Church, which is located off a gravel road in Brush Creek, has received renewed attention since the Archdiocese of Chicago introduced Fathe Tolton’s cause for sainthood earlier this year. The Diocese of Jefferson City expects that increasing numbers of pilgrims from across the country will be drawn to this sacred place and its cemetery because of Father Tolton’s affiliation.
The $21,293 Catholic Extension grant will be used to repair the church’s leaky roof, purchase new gutters, mend broken windowsills and refurbish the front door. In addition, funds will help purchase a stone sign to signify the section of the cemetery where more than 50 unmarked slave graves lie.
“Father Tolton, a humble son from Brush Creek, persevered against all odds in pursuit of his calling, and it is this perseverance we wish to honor and celebrate,” said Jane Rutter, Director of Stewardship in the Diocese of Jefferson City. “It is our hope that upholding his legacy will help inspire the next generation of Catholic sons and daughters to do and dream big.”
Father Augustine Tolton, “Good Father Gus”, as he was called by many, was known for his “eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent for playing the accordion.”