Born into slavery in Missouri, Tolton's mother fled with him into Illinois when the Civil War broke out. He was educated at Catholic schools, including St. Francis College (now Quincy University) in Quincy, Illinois, but no American seminary would accept him on account of his race. Undeterred, he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained there April 24, 1886. He returned to parish work in Quincy, but continued opposition from those who would not accept a black priest compelled him to move to Chicago, where he founded St. Monica's parish.
Regarding the claim of first "black" Catholic priest: While the ordination of James Healy (and his brothers), whose mother was of African descent, preceded that of Tolton, the Healys were not widely perceived to be "black" and did not so identify themselves.