This week in history: Father Tolton gets a Chicago pulpit

John Augustus Tolton, who died this week on July 9, 1897, became the first Black priest ordained by the Catholic Church in 1886.

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Portrait of Father John Augustus Tolton that ran in the March 8, 1890 edition of the Chicago Daily News

This portrait of Father John Augustus Tolton ran in the March 8, 1890 edition of the Chicago Daily News. Tolton died this week on July 9, 1897.

From the Sun-Times archives

As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Between 1888 and 1890, the “In and About Chicago” column in the Chicago Daily News captured the comings and goings of the city, a sort of catch-all for the paper where stories about divorce proceedings, petty criminals released from prison, club happenings and even mentions of a local’s pet alligator found a home.

In this column on Feb. 27, 1890, the Daily News officially announced to readers that Father John Augustus Tolton, the first Black man to be ordained by the Catholic Church, would be coming to a pulpit in Chicago. The city would become Tolton’s home for the rest of his life before he died unexpectedly on July 9, 1897 while on a retreat.

Tolton would join the congregation at St. Jarlath’s church at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Hermitage Avenue on March 2, the paper reported.

“Though born a slave,” it continued, “he is now in point of culture second to few men of his station. Father Tolton is brought to St. Jarlath’s under the auspices of the St. Vincent de Paul society of the parish.”

The Daily News followed up with the new priest in March after he’d settled in and shared more about his background. Born in Missouri, Tolton showed an interest in religion from a young age, more likely to be found studying in church than swimming or playing with the other children. When he was 9, he and his mother were set free, and she moved them to Quincy, Illinois, where Tolton continued to study religion while working for a tobacco dealer.

Father Rectur of St. Francis’ church in Quincy “conceived a liking for the lad and took him in,” the paper said, “and the young Tolton studied under the priest’s direction.” At the age of 27, he was ordained in Rome and began causing “quite a sensation” at St. Joseph’s church back home. “Crowds flocked to hear the eloquent words that flowed from his lips.”

At 31, Tolton transferred to Chicago, but beyond these two clips, “Good Father Gus,” as he was affectionately called, he did not appear in the pages of the paper again until he died in 1897.

From the write-up about his funeral, however, it’s clear that Tolton performed a lot of good in the city and inspired his parishioners.

“So great was the crowd that assembled in St. Monica’s church at the funeral service of Father Augustus Tolton that the seats were all filled long before 10 o’clock and a line extended out into the street,” the Daily News reported on July 12.

The beloved priest had just returned from a retreat in Kankakee, the paper said, when he collapsed at the corner of Ellis Avenue and 35th Street. He later died at Mercy Hospital “from the effects of heat.”

Tolton had lived with his mother in a small house behind his church. She stayed there on the day of his funeral, “sitting and mourning the loss of her son.” Following the funeral, he body would be taken back to Quincy for burial.

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“You talked to him for even a few minutes [and] you had nothing but warmth toward him,” said his brother, journalist Ellis Cose, an author and former Sun-Times columnist.