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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.”
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.
Sister 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.