The story of America's first black priest begins with a miraculous escape from slavery in 1862.
Augustus Tolton, who is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church, was born a slave in Missouri in April 1854. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, had him baptized Catholic, the faith of the family that owned them.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Peter Tolton ran away to join the Union Army. Months later, Martha Tolton also fled with her three children, Augustus, Charles and Anne — a bid for freedom that nearly ended in capture. The Toltons were chased through the woods by Confederate slave catchers.
"We stayed hidden in the bushes, afraid to breathe," recounted actor Jim Coleman, who is starring as Augustus Tolton in the one-man play "Tolton: From Slave to Priest," being performed at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Va., during a national tour. "They dragged us out. But like angels coming down from heaven, we saw Union soldiers. They smuggled us into a dilapidated rowboat and pushed out into the mighty Mississippi River."
The Confederate soldiers continued to shoot as Augustus' mother rowed across the river. When they made it safely to freedom in Illinois, they got directions to the small settlement of Quincy, where they joined a Catholic church. Tolton's mother took him to a local Catholic school and asked the priest to allow Augustus to study there.
The Rev. Peter McGirr was impressed by Tolton's intelligence, teaching him Latin and Greek. He encouraged Tolton to enter the priesthood.
"McGirr promised Augustus he would be educated," Coleman said. "He wrote letters in the U.S. to get Augustus into a seminary. None accepted him because of his race. Then Father McGirr wrote letters to Rome, saying this individual was brilliant."
In 1880, Tolton was sent to Rome, where he entered the seminary at Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide. On April 24, 1886, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest.
He celebrated his first mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
Tolton thought he would be sent as a missionary to Africa, but the Vatican ordered him to return to the U.S. "It was said that I would be the only priest of my race in America and would not likely succeed," Tolton wrote, according to the Catholic News Herald.
But he did, becoming a popular pastor of St. Joseph Church in Quincy. "He was loved," said Coleman, the actor who is portraying him. "But the problem was he was taking parishioners from white churches, even Protestant churches. Everybody wanted to see this priest who studied in Rome. They ran him out of Quincy."
In 1891, he was sent to Chicago, where he opened St. Monica's Church, built with donations from philanthropists. Tolton died in 1897 from heatstroke at age 43.
In 2011, Cardinal Francis George, who was the archbishop of Chicago, announced the push to make Tolton a saint.
Tolton is one of six blacks and three former slaves being considered.
Two miracles credited to Tolton's intercession have been sent to Rome for evaluation, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry told Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper. Perry is the priest designated by the archdiocese to lead the canonization effort — a process that can take decades.
"We're hoping and our fingers are crossed and we're praying," Perry said, "that at least one of them might be acceptable for his beatification."
A theological commission will begin its investigation into Tolton's cause in February.