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.


Communism Came to Slovakia and Sister Cecilia

After her escape Sister Cecilia lived in the United States

After her escape Sister Cecilia lived in the United States

First you may want to read here about how Dianne found The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia in another book club selection: Waiting for the Apocalypse by Veronica Chater.

Following World War I Slovakia gained independence from Austro-Hungary.  Following World War II they lost that short lived freedom to the Russian Communists.

Sister Cecilia grew up as the daughter of a Catholic farmer and was 17 years into a successful career as a teaching sister with the Daughters of the Most Holy Saviour when their tentacles began slithering into her life.

“The seed, I guess, had been there from the time the Russian Army occupied Czechoslovakia briefly after World War II.  The Communists need little time to plant their seed, and once planted, it grows swiftly as weeds.  One day you have a flower garden.  You turn your back, and when you look again, the weeds are swarming over it, choking the flowers …. sooner than anyone could have expected, the Communists were in power.”Weeds on railroad tracks

Sister goes on to explain that the Communists destroyed liberty in stages that were easier for the people to accept.  Prior to 1948 religion was taught in all public schools.  The priests and nuns from the Catholic schools taught regular classes in all the public schools.  In their first, limited move toward control, the Communists stopped all teaching of religion in all schools after sixth grade.

One summer and one school year passed in this way, then they moved in again.  All priests and nuns were forbidden to teach in public schools, including sixth grade and below.

Then, very cautiously, they moved against the Catholic schools:

Fall of 1949

Grade school teachers attended meetings led by a “supervisor” from the Department of Education.   One example was the theme “You should raise the children from the beginning to make the realize they have a good government.”

November 1949

Short Russian Communist songs are given to the teachers to teach the children they are told to teach the life of Joseph Stalin, including how “he helped the people–how kind he was.”

December 1949

The teachings about St. Nicholas and Christmas are forbidden, and the teachers are instructed to no longer send the children home to their parents at lunchtime.  ” ‘That way,’ said the supervisor, ‘the children will not learn the old ways, but will get to be progressive citizens for the Communist Government when they grow up.’ ”

January 1950

The greetings “Praised be Jesus Christ” and “Forever Amen” are changed to “Honor to Work” and the reply “Honor.”

February 1950

The end of verbal religion lessons.  And then, ” ‘Take all religious pictures and objects down from your classroom.’ ”

May 1950

The sisters are told that in order to stay on as teachers they will be required to receive a diploma from a course in how to teach Communism to the children.  The sisters refused.

August 15, 1950

“The civilian teacher came, and I gave her the inventory.  Then I gave her the keys to the convent and walked away and across town on the old stone streets.”

Sister Cecilia Kills Her Goose

We’ve been reading The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia: the Thrilling Story of a Heroic Nun and her Escape from the Communists by Sister Cecilia as told to William Brinkley.  It was published in 1954 shortly after Sister left Slovakia with a band of priests and seminarians plus a family with 2 small children under cover of night and under the noses of Communist guards.

Sister Cecilia Life Magazine

Claudette Colbert played Sister Cecilia in the television version of Sister’s escape.

Brinkley first wrote the story as a Life Magazine article. The author and his editors took the words of Sister Cecilia about her family, childhood, friends, vocation and life as a nun and managed to portray all of the innocence and happiness these entailed while moving the story along with the kind of pace that keeps you reading in the present moment; glad to be where you’re at while knowing something worthwhile is still coming up.

Then, in a few pages, yet spanning many months Brinkley portrays Sister’s disbelief and shock at the dismantling of entire lives, moral foundations, communities and ultimately an ancient culture by foreign Communist invaders.

I’m always amazed when an adult is able to capture glimpses into her childhood as though she were still there experiencing the fresh memories and emotions instead of recalling them 30 or 40 years later.  At this, Sister and Brinkley are splendid!  A humorous thread throughout Part II shows how little Cecilia had quite a bit of trouble with mischief and honesty as a young girl:

“Watching the geese was fun.  All day long you got to stay in the fields and play with the other little girls.  Sometimes, though, the big goose would decide she wanted to go home before it was time.  She would start off honking loudly, and ll the little goslings would follow her.  This meant you had to go home with them and couldn’t play.  One time when we were all playing and having fun, my big goose started for home.  I got mad at her and picked up a big stick and hit her over the head.  She fell down and lay there.  I hadn’t meant to hit her so hard.  I picked her up and carried her home in my arms crying all the way, and told Mamicka, my mother, ‘She died.’

Mamicka was very suspicious.  ‘How could she die?’ she said.  ‘She isn’t even blown up like a sick goose.’

‘She just fell over and died,’ I said, crying loudly, but not mentioning the stick.  Then the gypsies got the goose.  Anything that died went to the gypsies.  I felt bad about that goose for a long time.  I was a very bad girl, and especially as a goosewatcher …. [b]y the time I was seven and went to my first confession, I must have had lot to go for.”

Later in the story Sister confirms for a young girl who questions her about whether a bad little girl might grow up to become a nun, yes indeed she might!

More posts about the Communist takeover of Slovakia and Sister Cecilia’s nerveracking escape will be added soon.

Next Book Club Night: The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia & Mardi Gras

Well, well.  I don’t think our Book Club night has ever fallen on Fat Tuesday before.  During Mardi Gras, yes.  And the Easter season for sure.  In fact before we began breaking bread together at our meetings we would have a yearly Potluck party to celebrate each Easter Season.  But this year we will be gathering on the night before Ash Wednesday.

The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia was chosen after Dianne’s recommendation which you can see here There is a strong ethnic theme for this selection, because the setting for the life story of Sr. Cecilia is her country of Slovakia.  It is the very sad story of the forced Communist takeover and rule of that country leading to her real-life escape.

The tale is riveting so far.  Around the time little Cecilia was 8 years old or so her father returned from fighting in World War I and Slovakia won its independence from Austro-Hungary.  After attending High School in a nearby town and entering the order of the Daughters of the Most Holy Saviour in the capital, Bratislava, Sister’s time in the convent before the Communists destroyed all the orphanges as well as the convents and churches was full of discipline, learning to be obedient and much fun.

Yes, there is fun in a convent, certainly if it is the Daughters of the Most Holy Saviour, who are not stiff and solemn at all.  Three days before Lent Mother Superior let all the sisters do almost anything they liked.  So we’d have a party in the convent and dress up in costumes which we would make ourselves, and dance and sing and have lots of fun.

The custom of having parties during the waning days of Mardi Gras approaching

Sisky: traditional Slovak donuts

Sisky: traditional Slovak donuts

Lent is called Fasiangy in Slovakia.  The traditional days of celebration are the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday leading up to Ash Wednesday.  The book does give some general food names such as Kolachi but not specific Mardi Gras foods.  One I found on the internet was Sisky, a type of doughnut.  In the past Mardi Gras foods of various cultures represented the types of foods one would fast from during Lent, so were made from eggs, butter, meat and meat fat.

Who knows what we’ll be eating on Fasiangy?  We never know until we get there.  But I’ll be sure to take some photos.

Also, many more Sister Cecilia quotes will be added here in the next few weeks to show as many people as possible how a hostile takeover of a religious people happens and how quickly religious liberty is trampled and thrown away!