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Augustus Tolton: From Slave to Priest
As we celebrate black history month, the Catholic Diocese of Springfield is celebrating February in a special way. Father Augustus Tolton was the first black priest in America, and he started his priestly service in this diocese.
Tolton was born in Missouri, escaped slavery by fleeing to Illinois with his family at a young age, became Catholic in Quincy, later studied to be a priest in Rome, and then, thinking he may never return to Illinois, he was in for a surprise.
"He was sent right back to Quincy," Fr. Peter Harman said. "The Cardinal in charge said, 'If America is an enlightened nation, they will get their first black priest.' So, he came back here to serve."
Harman is the pastor at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield. He is on what is called a "guild for the cause for the advancement of Fr. Tolton to sainthood."
"Our responsibility is to try to promote his name and promote devotion around him," Harman said.
For black Catholics, like Jocelyn Holmes, a student at Cathedral, having the first black priest from this Diocese is special.
"I think he's a really good influence, not just to black people," Holmes said. "I think he can encourage people to do whatever they want to do."
In a time where prejudice and inequality were prominent, Tolton broke that barrier.
"He is an inspiration, not just to blacks, not just to Catholics, but to those who seek equality and who will not stop what they believe God is calling them to do," Harman said.
"I think he's important to Catholics because when the law happened that black people were equal, I think that was important because we had a black priest too," Holmes said.
Before Tolton was buried in Quincy in 1897, newspapers reported the funeral cortege was four blocks long and and several hundred people went to the cemetery in streetcars.