His family settled in Quincy, Ill., where he attended an otherwise all-white Catholic school, the church said. No Catholic seminary in the United States at the time would admit a black man, so Father Tolton had to study in Rome when he decided to become a priest.
He did not think he would return to the United States and planned to work as a missionary in Africa, studying its history and languages. But after he was ordained in Rome at age 31, his plans were scrapped by Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni.
Cardinal Simeoni sent Father Tolton back to Quincy. He wanted him to undertake missionary work of a different kind.
“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” the cardinal said, according to the biography. “We shall see if it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.”
Father Tolton spent three difficult years in Quincy. He faced racial hostility, including from a white priest in the parish who used racial slurs to refer to him and convinced the bishop to bar him from ministering to white people.
He was later transferred to Chicago, where he ministered to the poor and built the community at St. Monica’s Catholic Church, which served African-Americans in the city. He died of heat stroke in 1897, the church said. He was 43.
Father Tolton was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, in the Diocese of Springfield, which said Wednesday that it was considering erecting a shrine to him.
“Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice and racism, to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after,” said Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield. “What a source of great pride to have the nation’s first black priest and someone who is on his way to sainthood, live and minister in our diocese.”