One of the joys of being a book reviewer is learning new things about the Catholic faith and being able to pass along the books that can help others do the same. One such book recently popped up on my radar, and the subject of the book was a future saint I had never heard much about before. You may have been seeing a lot of press lately on Father Augustus Tolton whose cause for sainthood has begun. Recently named Venerable by Pope Francis, his story is a fascinating one that includes lessons we can apply to our age. Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers has written this book I am referring to and it is titled, Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest.
Deacon Harold begins the book with a brief chapter that provides an overview of the life of Father Augustus. I’d encourage you to get the book to read the whole story, but in summary, Father August Tolton was born in 1854 in Missouri. Both of his parents were slaves. Eventually, Tolton gained his freedom and began to pursue his dream of becoming a priest. Door after door was closed to him as no seminary in the United States would admit him because of his race. Some priests were adamant that he held the qualities necessary to become a priest, so an appeal was made to the Vatican and Tolton was accepted to study in Rome. Upon completing his studies and being ordained a priest, he was sent back to serve the African American community in Quincy, Illinois. Father Augustus had achieved his dream of becoming a priest but not only that; he was the first African American priest in the United States. Later he was transferred to Chicago, where he started and led St. Monica parish until he died in 1897.
So what makes Deacon Harold’s book unique and much more than a simple biography (although that would have been just as good!)? In addition to the short biography in Chapter 1, the book contains an additional five chapters that each deal with a topic relevant to our times today. In turn, Deacon Harold ties those issues back to Father Augustus and uses his life’s example and how he dealt with adversity to show how we can do the same.
One of the most significant chapters that struck me was the chapter “Overcoming Racism.” Step back and consider that Father Augustus was born into a nation in turmoil. In 1854 the rumblings were beginning of what would eventually erupt into the Civil War. By the time he was beginning his journey to the priesthood, those wounds of war were still very much prevalent. This is what makes his eventual assignment as the first black priest in America so groundbreaking and amazing.
In the chapter “The Power of Prayer” Deacon Harold tells of an exchange between a young Augustus Tolton and his mentor Fr. Michael Richardt where Augustus is struggling with the plight of the African people at that point in time and prior. He was trying to figure out in his mind justice and how it applied to them. This chapter is worth its weight in gold.
In each of these chapters (Overcoming Racism, Building Strong Families, The Power of Prayer, A Culture of Life and the Meaning of Human Suffering, Freedom in God’s Mercy) Deacon Harold looks at examples in Father Augustus Tolton’s life that apply. He ties those back to the very real issues we face in society today. He also includes sections called “Biblical Parallels” that show us in scripture how to address these concerns today. This book is more than a biography; it’s a primer for life and a tool for changing the world.
Fr. Augustus faced tremendous opposition during his life. Racism was prevalent. But what did he do? He could have retaliated; he could have thrown his hands up and walked away; he could have descended the slippery slope of drug use that was common in his time. He did none of those. Instead father Augustus Tolton took the lessons of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to heart. He picked up his Cross, and he moved forward. He became a catalyst for change. In our broken society where dialogue is no longer a path to reconciliation Father August Tolton can be the example to repair the brokenness around us today. Get this book, learn from his example, and pray for his much-deserved sainthood. Father Augustus Tolton…..pray for us!