Last weekend I had the honor of attending a Mass Archbishop Nelson Pérez celebrated in honor of Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest. And while every liturgy is beautiful, this annual one is particularly dear to my heart: “Good Father Gus,” as he was known to his 19th-century parishioners, has in recent years become a true spiritual friend and mentor to me.
Father Tolton’s steadfast, Christ-like witness in the face of relentless rejection is beautifully captured in the calm gaze of his clerical portraits, now reprinted on thousands of holy cards and banners. More than a century after his untimely death (hastened by an exhausting pastoral ministry), Tolton leads us with his very eyes — which on earth beheld unspeakable suffering and injustice — to higher and heavenly ground.
From infancy, he learned to look in that direction from his mother’s arms — literally. Martha Jane and her husband Peter Paul, though enslaved by Catholic families, knew their real Master, and they instilled in Augustus and his siblings their deeply held faith in the One who is the source of true liberty.
Having escaped to fight for an end to slavery, Peter Paul died of dysentery while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Martha Jane, unaware of his death, nonetheless continued his legacy, fleeing their owners’ Missouri farm with her three small children to Quincy, Illinois, home of Dr. Richard Eells and other abolitionists, and a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
On that harrowing journey, Martha Jane’s arms — though cruelly conditioned to harsh labor and punishment — must have ached unimaginably. Her infant daughter Anne was only 20 months old, and the young widow would have had to carry her for hours on end, while shepherding Augustus and his brother Charles, whose health was poor. Traveling at night to evade armed bands of slave catchers (and the punishment of mutilation and death), the little family made their way 20 miles on foot to Hannibal, where the Mississippi River flowed like the Red Sea between them and Illinois.
Confederate officials were about to capture them when Union soldiers intervened, claiming jurisdiction over the area and securing a battered rowboat for the Toltons. Though she had never held an oar in her life, Martha Jane rowed almost a mile at night across the muddy waters, as Confederate bullets splashed into the currents.
Once ashore, she picked up her daughter and led the boys another 21 miles on foot to Quincy. Finding their way to what was known as the city’s Negro district, they were taken in by a Mrs. Davis, making their home with the widow and her nine-year-old daughter Mary Ann. Martha Jane immediately found work at a nearby cigar factory; her arms, like those of her two sons — who were also hired there — had little rest.
When parishioners at nearby St. Boniface protested vehemently just a month after Augustus was enrolled in their all-white school, Martha Jane’s arms were “flung around the boy’s shoulders,” with “mother and son … walking down the sidewalk after we drove them out,” the pastor, Father Schaeffermeyer, later recalled with sorrow.
Those same arms cradled her dying son Charles, who only lived until his tenth year, and continued to provide for her family as she finally received word in 1865 of her husband’s death.
Years later, after Augustus had discerned a call to the priesthood, those arms embraced him as he departed for Rome: no seminary in the United States would accept him because of his skin color.
How firmly those arms must have again enfolded her son returning as an ordained priest, one who would distinguish himself to faithful both Black and white for his charity, zeal, eloquence and beautiful singing voice. How quick those arms were to assist Augustus, at once her child and her pastor, in his ministry; Martha Jane was fondly dubbed “Mother Tolton.”
Her son knew well the source from which those arms, and the soul that governed them, drew their strength: Christ himself, to whom Martha Jane had wholeheartedly surrendered herself, finding in that submission the fullness of human dignity. Indeed, Father Tolton attested throughout his life that he had learned to pray and sing hymns to God at his mother’s knee, and amid closed doors and locked hearts, he saw in his mother’s openness to the Lord a pattern of the way forward.
Martha Jane’s arms were sacrificially stretched, like Christ’s, in courageous, selfless giving that glorified God and gave life to others. As our nation commemorates the day on which it declared its independence, we would do well to extend our own as Mother Tolton did — and finding in Christ our eternal freedom, ensure that all those made in the image and likeness of God share in it.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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