By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator 

As the lights dimmed across the ballroom of the Catholic Life Center, with the exception of a soft blue hue focused on the stage, the audience is taken back to 1862.   

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Pictured with Jim Coleman, center, who played the part of Father Augustus Tolton in the play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” is Bishop Michael G. Duca, left, and Deacon Alfred Adams, director of the Office of Black Catholics of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 

 

A wide-eyed, young Augustus Tolton, born into an enslaved family, makes a harrowing night-time escape with his courageous mother, Martha, sister and baby brother across the Mississippi River to the town of Quincy, Illinois. Dodging bullets from Confederate soldiers and spurred to keep rowing the boat by his mother, Augustus’ family makes it to safety. His mother turns to him and says, “John, boy, you are free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord.”  

From the beginning of this riveting one-man performance “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” which features actor Jim Coleman and through the artistry of video other cast members were so realistically portrayed they seemed to be on stage as well, people across the Diocese of Baton Rouge learned about the inspiring story of America’s first African-American priest.  

Audience members laughed and cried during the Dec. 4 performance as Coleman took them on an emotional journey through the peaks and valleys of Father Tolton’s life, breaking through the glass windows of the Catholic Church in America to pursue his desire of becoming a priest.   

Coleman deftly portrayed the harassment the future priest faced by his classmates and rejection by parents at his Catholic school in Quincy. Coleman showed how the young boy’s determination and faith was unshakable.  

Throughout his life Father Tolton was haunted with thoughts of defeat from an evil spirit, effectively depicted through video, that tried to convince him his life would never amount to much, as well as characters who hurled racist remarks against him, drawing gasps from the audience. But at those crucial moments, words of encouragement from his mother shined through.   

Father Tolton was also supported by his pastor, Father Peter McGirr, who inspired the boy to consider entering the priesthood.   

“You have to take your fight into the spiritual realm,” he advised Father Tolton.  

When Father Tolton was rejected by every seminary in the United States, Father McGirr arranged for him to be tutored privately by local priests until St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) admitted him in 1878 as a special student.    

Coleman then twirled and walked as the stage turned into the streets of Rome as his character continued his studies for the priesthood at the Urban College of the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide in Rome.   

After studying for six years, Father Tolton was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886.   

Even in Rome he could not escape the voice of the evil spirit but his mother’s voice was also with him, singing, “Oh Lord, make my son a great saint for our people.”  

People speculated Father Tolton would be a missionary in Africa, but he was assigned to the United States and returned in 1886.  

Dressed in vestments, Coleman gave a stirring delivery of Father Tolton celebrating his first Mass at St. Benedict the Moor,  Moor, a predominately black church in New York City, before returning to his hometown of Quincy as pastor at the mainly black St. Joseph Church.   

Coleman showed how Father Tolton became such a popular preacher that he attracted some members of local whitemostly German or Irish congregations, sparking discrimination from diocesan priests.  

The St. Augustine Society, an African-American Catholic charitable organization, contacted Father Tolton about moving to Chicago to help its members found a congregation. In 1889, Rome granted Father Tolton a transfer to Chicago, where he became the city’s first African-American priest and was granted jurisdiction by the archbishop over all of Chicago’s black Catholics. At the beginning, he ministered to a black congregation that met in the basement of Old St. Mary’s Church.  

Coleman eloquently portrayed the passion Father Tolton had for his people, telling them, “Pray for your persecutors” and “There’s only one race  the human race.”  

Through the efforts of Father Tolton and the St. Augustine Society, as well as a private gift, money was raised to build St. Monica, a church on the southside of Chicago, where Father Tolton celebrated the first Mass in 1893.   

Father Tolton was plagued by “spells of illness” that same year and two years later was forced to take a temporary leave of absence. 

Even as he approached death, the evil spirit told him he was a failure. In a climatic scene, Coleman dramatized the priest clenching his rosary as he held it in the air and prayed in defiance of Satan.  

Father Tolton died at Mercy Hospital in Chicago in 1897.   

“Without a doubt, the production on Father Tolton was superbly done,” said Jerilyn Williams, director of religious education at St. Benedict the Moor Church in Bertrandville. “The actor portrayed the role so convincingly I had to pause a second and realize he was not an ordained priest.”  

“Father Tolton’s story truly challenged us about our faith,” she added. “His mother’s prayers and faith in her black son becoming a priest is as prevalent now as in so many walks of life today.  His desire to be a priest in spite of the prejudices he faced is a true testimony to our faith.”  

This play was personal for Father Rick Andrus SVD, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge. From 1982-1987 he was pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Chicago, where parishioners from St. Monica’s were transferred to when it was closed after Father Tolton’s death. After serving as a pastor at St. Nicholas Church in St. Louis, Father Andrus returned to St. Elizabeth in 2000.  

“When I knew I was going back to Chicago from St. Louis I made a special trip to Quincy,” said Father Andrus. “I went to his (Father Tolton’s) grave and prayed for his intercession and inspiration. I stayed at St. Elizabeth for 13 years and walked the same streets and did a lot of the social outreach he did.”  

Father Andrus said it was a joy to follow the same footsteps as St. Katherine Drexel and soon to be St. Tolton. He said the production sends a powerful message about the importance of education, working to eliminate institutional racism and that “God is in control.”  

St. Paul parishioner Martha Davis said, “I was just amazed at the way he (Coleman) moved into the role of Father Tolton.”  

Father Ed Chifrilller SSJ, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Baton Rouge said the play is “a story that needs to be told to the wider church community.”  

Johnny Narcisse, parishioner at St. Francis Xavier, was intrigued by the play and said though he went to an elementary Catholic school and later attended Xavier University in New Orleans, he was largely unaware of Father Tolton’s story. But he wants to learn more.  

“I grew up in the 1950s in the south. I went through some tough times with the Catholic Church,” said Narcisse.  

Cassandra Will, president of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women said “Father Tolton’s story is relevant to men that God is calling to the priesthood, particularly African-Americans, that all things are possible with God.    

“African-American males who are considering the priesthood, should use his story as a vehicle to pursue their calling.” 

(Coming Jan. 4: an in-depth and personal interview with Coleman and the impact portraying Father Tolton has had on the actor’s life.)