Black Catholic History: Fr. Tolton and His Parents

At Least We’re Here is a group of women who read and discuss books by Catholic Women Authors….find out more here

I want to add at least a couple of posts during November for Black Catholic History month.

At least one of them will have to be about Father Augustine Tolton and his incredible mother Martha Tolton.  In 2009 we read about Father Augustine Tolton in the book “From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), First American Black Priest of the United States” by Sister Caroline Hemesath.  While Fr. Tolton cause for sainthood has been open and is becoming more well known outside of Chicago where he was pastor of St. Mary’s, I think his mother was awesome (I’m sure he thinks to too)!

Martha is sent to Missouri

Martha Jane Chisley was baptized as an infant slave in Kentucky. As a young girl she was ripped from the lives of her parents and siblings when she was given as a gift to the just married daughter of the plantation owner and taken to Brush Creek Missouri. Sr. Hemesath paints an all too common scene beginning with the “slaves [being] loaded onto the cart.  Martha Jane wept convulsively at the thought of being separated from her parents and brother. No one paid the slightest attention to her sorrow.  At the moment of departing, her brother Charley, frenzied with grief, came running from the slave quarters. He jumped onto the cart and caught Martha Jane in a viselike embrace; he shrieked in desperation.  The overseer ordered the youth to leave, and when his words were neither heard nor heeded, the angered man brought his whip down on the young slave’s back.  Charley’s grasp loosened, and he fell from the cart in a crumpled heap at the feet of the overseer.  Martha Jane, catching a glimpse of the whip raised a second time, turned aside swiftly to avoid the painful sight.  Her face was distorted in agony and utter despair, and her heartbreaking moans were lost amid the shouts of farewells and the tumult of leavetaking.”

Peter and Martha: Made Perfect for Heaven Through the Marriage Sacrament

Meanwhile Peter Paul Tolton who was baptized and named after missionary priest Reverend Peter Paul Lefebre, worked in the rye fields adjacent to the land where Martha was being carted to labor.  He picked grain and worked as a handyman at the plantation’s whiskey distillery.  By the time Peter Paul spotted Martha the young man had spent many hours forming his opinion about the equality of all men and making the decision to escape the degradation.  As he happened to look  upon her as she comforted an exhausted and sick boy, “Peter glimpsed something rare and inestimably precious—Christian compassion.  It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.”


Peter Paul and Martha Tolton’s son Augustine was baptized at St. Peter’s Church in Brush Creek MO (this is a newer building)

Father Tolton’s Parents are Married at Saint Peter’s

In a fairy tale love story we expect to hear “they lived happily ever after.” However stories of American  slaves are rarely filled with happy endings.  After falling in love Peter and Martha were married at Brush Creek’s St Peter’s Church and were allowed to live together in a cabin accessible to both farms.  Augustine John was born in 1854, the middle of three children.  Slave family life was filled with “tension”, “fear”, “anxiety” and “terror.” Peter did not give up on his ideas of escape and Martha supported and encouraged him until finally,  “strengthened by her faith and love, Peter tore himself away from his dear ones, escaped, and found his way to the army headquarters at Saint Louis.”

Peter Escapes and Martha Does Too

In the meantime the waiting Martha became increasingly terrified by the wanderings of extremely cruel and vicious slave traders from the south who were looking for children to purchase.  She decided to escape with the children and the two older boys recalled a harrowing journey which included capture and their smuggling to the Mississippi River by Union Army soldiers.  Once they were on the water Confederates gave chase again and fired upon the family with muskets.  “Undaunted by the whistling bullets, the mother ordered the children to lie flat in the bottom of the vessel.  The baby screamed from sheer bewilderment and fright.  The boys did what they could to calm her, although they also cried all the way.  “Relying entirely on the protection of divine power, the determined mother clung to the oars and succeeded in placing a safe distance between the boat and the chagrined slave hunters.”

Struggling from hunger and exhaustion, and no doubt spurred on by supernatural graces, Martha landed in the free state of Illinois, only to eventually learn that her beloved Peter had given his life for freedom as a Union soldier along with hundreds of other freed and escaped black slaves.

Throughout the rest of her life Martha would experience so many more sorrows as she watched her son reach out to the Catholic priesthood only to be rejected.  Like the Blessed Mother she stubbornly clung to God until finally Augustine was accepted at the seminary in Rome and eventually ordained.

From Slave to PriestSister Hemesath’s story of the Tolton Family and Augustine’s eventual work as a priest in Illinois is riveting from beginning to end.  The book calls Father “Augustine” while the website for his canonization uses “Augustus.” Not sure why this is; if you know please leave a comment.


A Day With Immaculée


Laurence and Dianne on retreat with Immaculée

I flew to Sacramento a few days ago to visit my aunt.  It’s really been a nice visit. 

The Eldorado Hills area in this part of California is beautiful, and the weather is pretty much perfect right now.  The nights are around 60 degrees and the days have been rather warm but not super hot.  Unlike Colorado there is rarely any wind or rain or clouds (until winter that is).

I was surprised after I arrived here to find this photo in my email.

  I knew Immaculée Ilibagiza was going to be in Denver while I was gone and I wished I could be there to see her. 

However I had NO idea Dianne and Laurence were going to be there!

Immaculée is one of our favorite authors, considering we’ve read 3 out of 3 of her books; something we rarely do.  I think we read 2 of Sigrid Undset’s massive epics, one a trilogy (Kristin Lavransdatter) and the other a 4 volume series (Master of Hestviken)!

However we’ve read 3 of Immaculee’s books just for book club!  That is pretty remarkable for a 13 year old book club.  Last year this blog was linked up to Brandon Vogt’s Catholic Speaker 2012 post, and I featured an “Sort-of Interview” with Immaculée for that post.

I wish I had more time to add all the wonderful insights we gained from her books and appearances in Denver.  But , alas, I have to get ready fly home on standby in the morning and I have to add a post to my blog sometime!!

In the meantime read more about our Lady of Kibeho here and here.  Also see her speak about the genocide of abortion here.

So enjoy, and look for Immaculée’s new book soon: The Rosary Saved My Life.  I can’t WAIT to read that one.

4 Great Lessons About Marriage

A few days ago I wrote about Letters to a Young Bride by Alice von Hildebrand, which we read in 2005.  Here is the second post I promised which contains lessons from that book:

“Like all great things in life, marriage is a risk–a ‘deed of daring’ (as Kierkegaard said.)”

Letters to a Young Bride, a powerful antidote to failure for marriages both young and old

Letters to a Young Bride gives newlyweds a valuable taste of experience

Lesson 1 Be Ready for a Fight

But fight together: “Your success won’t depend on exterior circumstances, but on your own inner attitudes: are you both willing to fight the good fight for your marriage, trusting that your mutual love, strengthened by grace, will achieve victory in spite of the tempests that threaten every human undertaking?”

Lesson 2 Develop an I-Thou Relationship

Guard your quiet time together: “I know of many marriages that have grown cold or even failed because involvement with other people or with children has become so predominant that the I-Thou dimension has receded completely into the backround.”  It’s not so much a question of actual time but of “loving longing.”

“Mother Teresa of Calcutta is certainly one of the busiest people on earth, yet she spends hours absorbed in prayer and loving contemplation of ourr Savior …. similarly, throughout your marriage, you should try to reserve moments foryou and Michael in which you forget everything else, talk to each other concentrate exclusively on each other and revivify your love.”

Lesson 3-Don’t Always be Strongest (the winning kind)

Think the person who wins the argument is always stronger?  Dr. von Hildebrand thinks that “when arguments on each side are equally weighted (the title of this chapter is I Want a Dishwasher, He Wants a Stereo) and there is no easy way to resolve the issue based on the evidence alone keep in mind that the person who gives in out of love is always the greater one.”  “This spouse is by far the stronger one, for he’s achieved the most difficult of all victories: conquering his own self-will.”

According to Cardinal Newman: ‘No two persons perhaps are to be found, however intimate, however congenial in tastes and judgements, however eager to have one heart and one soul, but must deny themselves…much which they like or dislike, if they’re to live together happily.’

Lesson 4-Build a Mental Treasure Chest of Memories

“No matter how deeply we love someone, human imperfections and difficult circumstances inevitably dull that beauty of soul which we first perceived in him …. In such moments I turn to the treasure chest of sweet memories I have of the person and I try vividly to recall a word, a gesture, an act of generosity or heroism which has particularly revealed to me his true self, his unique beauty.”

Dr. von Hildebrand tells the story of how a friend she was traveling through a violent storm with set aside her own fears and spent the flight quietly comforting her and holding her hand, her face expressing “nothing but loving kindness.”  It has touched her so profoundly that in moments of doubt and disagreement she has only to recall that memory and her heart is full of gratitude for that friend.

As you might imagine the book holds much more wisdom for new and experienced brides. 

I pulled it out the other day for this post and have gleaned as much from the second reading as I did from the first; and I’ve been married 33 years.  Keep it close at hand and refer to it often!

How Does Marriage Work?

  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraph 1604 states that, “Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.”

Ideally! Yet we have found in much of our reading as well as in life itself that marriage can be extremely difficult and sometimes seem impossible.  This is because sin, which manifests itself in a “spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation” has entered marriage just a surely has it has entered into creation. (CCC 1606)

Most of us who have been married for any length of time know this must be true

It does become apparent that it is humanly impossible for a husband and wife to “[follow] Christ, [renounce] themselves, and [take] up their crosses” while the marriage covenant remains “indissoluble.”  (CCC 1615)


Wedding Feast at Cana: Jesus turned water into wine

But what seems impossible to us is never impossible to God!

Through the visit of Jesus and His mother Mary to a wedding feast in the town of Cana (John 2:1-11) marriage was raised to a Sacrament: a “confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.” (CCC 1614)

June is the month for marriage

Tons of my friends have had anniversaries this month, and my anniversary is in June (33 years this year).  So the final posts for June will be about marriage; in the context of our book club selections of course! Through the fictional, historical and biographical writings of Catholic women from many cultures and time periods we’ve seen evidence again and again that marriage can be a nightmare or a source of great joy, but either way one or both members have found hope in relying on Christ for their strength.

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic woman philosopher, theologian and author

She has written volumes about marriage (among other topics).  Her essay The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage masterfully continues her deceased husband Dietrich’s “mission of highlighting the role that love should play in marriage.”

Author Alice von Hildebrand: we read one of her many books in 2005

Author Alice von Hildebrand: we read one of her many books in 2005

We read By Loved Refined: Letters to a Young Bride in 2005

It’s a wise little journal packed with letters of advice to a newly married woman from a more experienced friend.  Wives young and old will find a myriad of ways to persevere in love, but be forewarned; you can’t bring your pride.


Over the weekend I’ll post some lessons on marriage from Dr. Hildebrand’s book.