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Relative Reveals Personal Side of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton

Venerable Augustus Tolton was extremely close to his family, including his sister, Anne Tolton Pettis (1847-1912), who was married and had a son. Tolton. (Photo: Courtesy of Pastor Sabrina Penn)

CLEVELAND — Pastor Sabrina Penn can tell you a lot about Venerable Augustus Tolton and the ongoing effort to have him declared a saint. One largely unknown fact she can tell you about is that he loved music and played the concordia.

Pastor Penn has a keen insight into Father Tolton (1854-1897), the first known African American Catholic priest. That’s because she is a relative — a direct descendant of Father Tolton’s sister, Anne Tolton Pettis — and has heard the family stories passed down through the generations.

As Tolton Pettis’ great-great-grandniece, she grew up hearing about Augustus Tolton, the man, not Father Tolton, the myth.

“He was a quiet man, very humble, from what my relatives told me. But he loved music, and he loved making music. He loved to sing and had a wonderful voice, I was told. One of his favorite things to do was to play the concordia,” said Pastor Penn, the pastor of Emmanuel Christ Temple, a nondenominational church in Cleveland.

Augustus Tolton was close to his mother, Martha Jane Crisley, and loved her cooking. One of her specialties was lamb brains and eggs, a delicacy that became a family tradition with the recipe handed down through the decades. 

Everyone in subsequent generations made it. “But it stopped with my mother. She refused to make it because she didn’t like it,” Pastor Penn said with a laugh.

Pastor Penn remembered hearing stories about Father Tolton, whom she called “Uncle Gus,” but was surprised to learn when she was 9 years old that he was a famous historical figure. “One day, my mother came to me, sat me down in the kitchen, and told me someone was writing a book about him,” she recalled.

Her reaction? “I asked my mother, ‘Why would somebody be writing a book about Uncle Gus?’ ” she said. “To me, he was just my relative.”

Pastor Penn has herself written two books about her famous relative, “A Place for My Children: Father Augustus Tolton, America’s First Known Black Catholic Priest and His Ancestry,” and a children’s book, “A Boy Called Gus.”

Father Tolton, who was born into slavery in Missouri, was ordained a priest in Rome in 1886 at the age of 31. He had been turned down by several seminaries in the U.S. before being accepted into Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.

“I heard he had to endure a lot of racial discrimination. But he kept the faith,” Pastor Penn said. “And his mother was like his backbone. He really loved his mother so much.”

Father Tolton spent much of his life as a priest ministering to black Catholic communities in Quincy, Illinois, and in Chicago. He also established a national black parish, St. Monica’s Church, in Chicago. 

He died of heat stroke in 1897 during a heat wave in Chicago. He was 43 years old. However, Pastor Penn is skeptical of the official cause of Father Tolton’s death and suspects that he might have been poisoned. 

“I have my suspicions. I do not deny he was sick. But I believe he feared for his life. And I believe my uncle was poisoned by botulism. You can’t tell if a person is having a heat stroke or if they’re poisoned by cyanide or something,” she explained. “But I know he was trying to create a society that was not acceptable.” She admitted, however, “that I have no proof.”

The cause for his canonization was opened in 2010. He was declared a Servant of God a year later. In 2019, he was granted the title of Venerable. The next steps would be beatification and then canonization.

Pastor Penn is filled with pride when she thinks of her famous relative. “I have so much joy in my heart,” she said.