St. Elizabeth Church has been in the Bronzeville Community for more than 100 years. After a merger with St. Monica Parish, the first Black Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago, on December 6, 1924, St. Elizabeth attained the prestigious title of “The Mother Church”. Under the spiritual and educational leadership of The Society of Divine Word Missionaries, Saint Katharine Drexel with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Father Augustus Tolton, the first universally recognized black Catholic priest in the United States.
Father John Augustus Tolton
The first Black priest to be ordained for the United States was appointed to organize the Black Catholics of Chicago. Rev. Tolton born a slave in Brush Creek, MO as a youth was baptized a Catholic. He grew up in Quincy, IL where he attended school. Denied permission to enter a U.S. Catholic seminary he pursued his studies at the Sacred College of the Propaganda in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886.
St. Elizabeth Church origins is from St. Monica Church
The origins of St. Monica Church date back to the late 1800s when Black Catholics worshipped in the basement of the Old St. Mary’s Church which was located at 9th and Wabash Ave. In 1892 Father Tolton met with a group of prominent Catholics to make plans for a new church at 36th and Dearborn.
Building a church
By 1893 The foundation of St. Monica Church was laid and when completed, the structure would be 62 feet wide by 100 feet in length, of Romanesque design, with twin towers. In 1894 St. Monica Church was dedicated on January 14, by Rev. M. Neumann, OSF. Father Riordan of St. Elizabeth also took part in the dedication.
Challenges come unexpectedly
In 1895 Father Tolton had to go on leave of absence to regain his health and St. Monica was cared for by the priest of St. Elizabeth. In June, Father Riordan wrote a letter “An Appeal on Behalf of the Black Catholics.” The letter published in the New World stated in part: As the colored Catholics are few in number, it was not expected that they would be able to meet the large expense necessary for the building of their church…. the church, though only partially built, is burdened with a very large debt, and I find myself greatly embarrassed in trying to meet even the current expenses. During a whole year I have practiced the most rigid economy, and am now obliged, though reluctantly, to appeal to the public for assistance. In 1897 Father Tolton continued his work among Chicago’s Black Catholics until sudden death from sunstroke on July 9th. Father Riordan of St. Elizabeth took charge of St. Monica.