After being tutored privately by local priests when Catholic colleges wouldn’t admit him, in 1878, he entered the Franciscans at Saint Francis College, now known as Quincy University, and helped found Saint Joseph School for Black children. The school was successful, despite opposition from white residents. After ordination he was assigned to his home diocese as pastor of the Negro Church of Saint Joseph in Quincy. Under Tolton’s leadership, the church grew to capacity and included white parishioners. This angered a Quincy clergy leader, who urged Tolton to minister only to Black members or leave.
In 1889 Tolton requested reassignment to Chicago, accompanied by his mother, sister and 19 of his Quincy parishioners. In Chicago, Tolton became pastor of an all-Black parish of 30 that had been meeting in temporary facilities. Tolton renamed it Saint Monica’s Chapel, opening initially as a storefront church. It grew to serve 600 black and white parishioners.
Fr. Augustus Tolton died on July 9, 1897 at the age of 43.