Bishop Joseph Perry tells story of first Black Catholic priest in lecture at Holy Cross
Liam Kelly | Friday, February 17, 2023
Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago urged the Catholic Church to embrace diversity in his lecture Thursday night at Holy Cross College on the life of Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be Black.
Tolton lived his life with a “heroic seriousness” that allowed him to persevere through the land mines of the racial discrimination in the 19th century, Perry asserted.
Born into slavery, Tolton’s family escaped to Illinois during the Civil War where he became a devout Catholic — despite being required to sit in a segregated section of his church and being forbidden from attending the local Catholic school.
“Parishioners threatened priests, and so Tolton was expelled,” Perry said.
Perry explained that Tolton remained steadfast in his faith despite the many obstacles. He was privately tutored by local nuns and then became ordained as a priest in Rome, as there were no seminaries that would accept him in the United States.
Instead of being sent to Africa as he assumed he would be, Tolton was sent to his local parish in the United States, which is when he became the first Black priest in the United States. While Tolton’s masterful rhetoric earned him a great deal of respect by many parishioners — both white and Black — many were hostile to his preaching.
“There were those who were not at all happy about Tolton’s success in the area and began to see Fr. Tolton as a threat to the status quo,” Perry said.
Tolton was then sent to a poor diocese in the south side of Chicago where he was deprived of any accommodations. Despite the difficulties, Perry said, Tolton remained a committed priest and continued his mission.
“Like all of the Blacks of his day, Tolton had to take all of the wacks and insults, and keep his dignity and the holiness of his priesthood,” Perry said.
Although Tolton may have preached almost a century and a half ago, Bishop Perry stood against the notion that the problems he faced were unique to his time.
“The 19th century which we like at first glance considered to be antiquated, backwards in its concepts of social relations,” Perry said, but Tolton’s time “presented a challenge that is set before us still to this day.”
While there are many Black priests in the United States today, Perry noted, there is still a great degree of racial segregation between parishes, and there are only about three million Black Catholics in the country. Perry urged Americans to confront these facts.
“The ideal parish is not one in which everyone looks alike, talks alike, shops at the same stores, wears the same clothing, sports the same hairdo, cheers for the same sports teams and votes for the same political candidates,” Perry argued. “The Church was never meant to be that comfortable.”
To Perry, much of blame for the lack of diversity in the Church rests on the historical exclusion of African Americans in the Church.
“Organized churches, on the other hand, have a mixed record with the acceptance of Blacks in their churches, participants and leadership-wise,” Perry said.
Perry urged the Church to confront its shameful past of racial discrimination and, in doing so, stay true to its teachings.
“Racism is an evil because it attacks the inherent dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God,” he said. “The Church was meant to branch out to embrace every man, woman and child on the face of the earth.”