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.”

St-Peters-Brush-Creek

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.

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A Night in Provence–Twice

We are a book club that reads Catholic Women Authors.  Read more about it here.

Two Months, One Book and One Essay

We were meant to gather in September and discuss A Traveller in Southern France by Christine Kaferly while eating Provencial cuisine.  We got off track though when some of us didn’t pick up the book in time and others were already finishing it up.  So Celeste recommended a superb article by pro-life activist Juli Wiley, titled “Jesus’ Genealogy: The Woman Problem.”

October 2013

October 2013

Plenty of French Food

Nevertheless when we arrived at book club in September many were prepared to discuss A Traveller and had fixed up some yummy French food.

When we assembled again in October to finally talk about the book lo and behold we ended up with plenty of dishes from the south of France.

I'm sauteing some Spinach

I’m sauteing some Spinach

Laurence and Gwen cook it up

Laurence and Gwen cook it up

Laurence's Leek Soup

Laurence’s Leek Soup

It was all extremely good and nobody minded.  Laurence grew up in France and made us an Eggplant Souffle and Leek Soup respectively.  I took the fresh vegetable route and cooked up some spinach and garlic that I topped with crumbled goat cheese.

Since I have a lot of time to make up for I’ll be back soon with news of a new baby, a beloved member who moved away (mom of the new baby) and a really new baby who is yet on the way!  There might be more news I haven’t thought of yet too.  And oh yes, I will comment more on the essay and the book.

The Murder of Father Coyle

At Least We’re Here is a blog about a women’s book club that reads books by Catholic Women Authors.  Read more here.

This is not a story about one of our book club books. 

It is about an extremely tragic and compelling story, and hey–it was written by a woman who became fascinated by a many-layered tale of the death of a Catholic priest–so….close enough.

Fr Coyle

Fr. James Coyle at his parish in Birmingham, Alabama. Father was shot and killed by an anti-Catholic sympathizer on August 11, 1921

Father James Coyle was the pastor of St Paul’s parish in Birmingham, AL during a time when the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a second wave of popularity for its condemnation of Catholic citizens and Catholic immigrants, whom the KKK claimed were plotting to overthrow the United States–together with the pope.

Author Sharon Davies, a law professor who learned about Fr. Coyle while researching a law article, has written the incredible story of the rise of this second wave of bigots, their persecution of Catholics in the South during the 1920s, and the courageous witness and martyrdom of an innocent priest in her book Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America  

This article by Davies from Columbia Magazine gives a summary of the events.  EWTN’s Bookmark Show featured Professor Davies in 2011:

Father Coyle was remembered above all for his persistence in defending his Catholic faith from the pulpit and repeated letters and editorials in the local press.  It was common knowledge among his parishioners that there were threats against his life and yet he insisted on sitting on his porch swing each night after dinner which ended up being the site of his death by 3 bullets from the killer’s gun.

Given the fact that only 10,000 Catholics resided in and around Mobile, almost every one of them must have shown up at Father’s requiem Mass for the “throng was so mammoth–the largest funeral gathering in state’s history,” that the “church itself with its thousand-plus capacity was filled to its limit long before the beginning of the 3:00pm service, and ‘thousands’ more who were unable to enter the hall stood quietly outside in the afternoon sun.”

I came across a “spoiler” while reading some articles online earlier today.  If you’re going to read the book look away now.

Reverend Stephenson, who shot Fr. Coyle in plain view of dozens of witnesses and then basically turned himself in at the Sheriff’s office immediately afterward, was found not guilty of murder after a week long trial.

How to Celebrate Book Lovers Day

I don’t know how I made it halfway through this day (or all the way through the week!) without realizing today is National Book Lovers Day. I suggest that if you, like me, want to celebrate and time is running out well then just go ahead and pick a plan or 2 from this list and enjoy being a book lover anytime.