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From American Slave to Catholic Priest: Meet “Good Father Gus”


April 1, 1854, Brush Creek, Missouri: Peter Tolton paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to their second son. They named him Augustus (after his uncle), and before the month was out, the baby was baptized in nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augustus’ godmother.

The baptism of Augustus was a bit unusual. That was because Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot, who happened to be the “owner” of Augustus’ mom and dad. Mr. and Mrs. Tolton were slaves, and their three children, Charley, Augustus and Anne, were born into slavery. The slave master made sure his slaves were baptized, and his family and his slaves were all Catholic.

After the Civil War began, the Toltons ran for freedom. Peter joined the Union army, and the rest of the family headed north. With the help of Union soldiers, Martha Jane and her children arrived in Illinois, a “free” state. Martha Jane and the children settled in Quincy, Illinois.

Martha Jane and her oldest boy, Charley, were hired by a local tobacco company to make cigars while Augustus, aged eight or nine, charged with taking care of his little sister, began spending a lot of time across the street from St. Peter’s Church. The pastor was Father McGirr.

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