In anticipation of Fr. Augustus Tolton’s impending canonization, Saint Ignatius College Prep’s Claver Society will now be known as the Tolton Society. Art Reliford ’72 began the Claver Endowment which benefits our African American students in need of financial aid. The Endowment has grown exponentially over the past 10 years with the leadership of the Claver Society, led by Gerald S. McCarthy ’80. Dozens of alumni as well as friends of the school have also been instrumental in reaching the endowment’s current total of over $500,000.
Reverend Augustus Tolton, the first African American slave to be ordained a Catholic priest, paid a “short visit” to the Jesuits as he was beginning his public ministry. Tolton’s education in Rome where he was ordained in 1886 marked him as a rising star among clergymen in the United States. But the hostility he faced from priests in Quincy, Illinois prompted him to look north to Chicago where Arnold Damen, S.J., had founded Holy Family parish and St. Ignatius College. Tolton quickly discovered that the city did indeed offer “a larger and more progressive field” as he began raising funds for St. Monica Church at 36th and Dearborn on the South Side.
Among Chicago’s Catholics, Tolton found a warm welcome in the college at “Twelfth Street” and Blue Island Avenue where he was a guest of the Jesuits in 1893. The Chicago Inter-Ocean reminded its readers that he would preach at High Mass at Holy Family and, according to the Jesuit ledger preserved in the archives of SICP, Tolton appealed “at all the masses” on Sunday January 29, 1893.
The predominantly Irish congregation of Holy Family responded enthusiastically, donating $500 dollars (nearly $15,000 in 2019 dollars) toward the construction of St. Monica’s Church. Fr. Tolton never wavered in his belief that the Catholic Church “is the great institution that must break down the barriers of racial prejudice.” When he died suddenly in 1897 from heat stroke, thousands of Chicagoans—white and black—turned out to mourn him. So great were the crowds that came to his two-day wake that “policemen were detailed there to keep the surging mass of people moving and in line.”