Over the past many weeks, I have repeatedly been asked what the Venerable Servant of God Father Augustine Tolton would think of the recent civil unrest occurring throughout our nation. It is risky business to attempt a guess at such a question (as it would be with any historical person) because the times and circumstances are not the same. Even if they were, we are each prone to sin and each of us can — and does — misjudge the words or actions of others, reading more into them than perhaps there is. Such was the case on at least one occasion with Father Tolton.
In March of 1893, he made plans to return to Quincy from Chicago for the funeral of Father Peter McGirr, his friend and mentor. Father Tolton intended to stay at the Tremont House and arrived on the evening of March 13.
Around 11 p.m., he went to the Tremont House, where the other priests in town for the funeral were also staying but was unable to find a room. The clerk explained that all the rooms were occupied, but that some rooms should become vacant around midnight. Father Tolton said, “‘I know what that means,’ and, turning on his heels, left the house” (The Quincy Daily Journal, March 16, 1893, p. 5).
Father Tolton interpreted this lack of accommodation as an offense, one motived by racial prejudice. In a letter to the editor of The Quincy Daily Journal, he said, “I know that on other occasions this kind of refusals has happened from the same house. I thought, however, time and association had worn off the rugged edges of some of these prejudiced and narrow-minded people. I speak thusly,” he said, “because I know that the fair and broad-minded citizens of Quincy would not tolerate such, and that they would not suffer to have their community responsible for such a position.” As the first publicly recognized black priest in the United States, he took this as “an insult to the millions of true and loyal Americans whom I have the honor to represent.”
After receiving his editorial, the newspaper contacted the proprietors of the Fremont House, who said that “if Rev. Tolton believes that he was refused a room on account of his being a negro, he is entirely mistaken” (The Quincy Daily Journal, March 15, 1897, p. 7). The clerk denied having refused any black man from renting a room and said the night Father Tolton was not immediately accommodated, three white men seeking rooms were likewise turned away after Father Tolton. The reporter examined the guest log and said, “the hotel register shows that every room in the house was occupied when Rev. Tolton and his friend applied for accommodations, and that in one room, No. 77, no less than four guests had been crowded.” Just after midnight, three rooms did in fact become vacant; had Father Tolton waited, he would have been given a room. His quick judgment led to an unfortunate situation for both parties.
When people ask what Father Tolton would think of our present circumstances, I cannot help but think of this unflattering episode in the life of this priest who otherwise lived a life of heroic virtue — even heroes have their bad moments. If I might be bold enough to hazard a guess, it seems that Father Tolton would urge us not to be rash in making judgments of others and not to be over hasty in attributing motivations to the hearts of others. As he so often did, I think Father Tolton would encourage us to see others as sons and daughters of God which can best be done through personal encounters.
Father Daren J. Zehnle, JCL, KCHS, is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and St. Peter Parish in Petersburg, director of the Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate, and judge in the diocesan Tribunal. A Quincy native, he hosts an annual mile-long pilgrimage procession in Quincy to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Father Tolton.