Play portrays life of black priest on saintly path

From being born to parents who were slaves to now being celebrated as a Servant of God in the Catholic Church, Father Augustus Tolton exemplifies how a person of strong faith can change lives and the world. 

Father Tolton’s life from age 8 to his death at 43 will come alive in a blend of live theater and film Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium in New Orleans. 

Actor Jim Coleman portrays Tolton in the play written and produced by St. Luke Productions. It has been staged  nationwide at more than 80 performances since 2017.

“It has been received very well,” said Coleman. “St. Luke’s Production can barely keep up with the request for the show.”

Coleman, an African American in his 50s, said he was surprised that he knew nothing about Father Tolton’s story of being the first recognized African-American diocesan priest.

“I was shocked. I wished someone would have told me about him,” he said.

Coleman said he used a biography, “Tolton – From Slave to Priest,” and letters he wrote to St. Katharine Drexel – she helped fund a church he pastored – to prepare for the role, which, on some nights, can be mentally and physically draining for the trained actor. 

“It has changed my life and the way I look at things,” Coleman said. “It’s been a moving experience. My heart is full every time I perform this show.”

Coleman said even though society has adopted rules against racism, mores of the past remain ingrained in some people.

“After you hear this story, you realize we are basically doing the same things today that were happening 200 years ago,” Coleman said. “We have these deep-seated feelings that should have been erased by now. God created us all for love.”

He hopes people walk away from the performance determined not to continue the stereotypes they may feel against people they don’t know just because of their skin color.

“The show makes us think, ‘Wow. I have to let it go,’” Coleman said. “The show should make us all love. He (Tolton) had to go to Rome to study for six years, and he was treated equally there,  but he couldn’t study in the country that was his own. We are considered the greatest nation and still can’t get along. … People come to me after, and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’”

Family faith strong

Father Tolton was born in 1853 to parents who were slaves. His father first escaped and eventually died fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War. His mother Martha then sought freedom with her three children on a treacherous journey from Missouri, landing in Quincy, Illinois.

To make ends meet, Martha and her children worked in a tobacco factory in Quincy. Even though life was tough, their Catholic faith was a constant in their lives. Being active in St. Boniface Church, Martha Tolton enrolled her son Augustus in the parish school. Threats to the parish and pastor from those who didn’t believe a black child should be educated in the school forced Augustus to leave after a month and enroll in a public school for blacks. 

But their faith never faltered. He eventually was enrolled in St. Peter (formerly St. Lawrence) Catholic School in Quincy, where he was confirmed at 16 and graduated at age 18. He also became an altar boy and showed interest in becoming a priest, though, at the time no U.S. seminary would accept him. 

He also studied at St. Francis College in 1878. In 1880, when he was around age 26, Tolton was admitted to the (Urban College) Propaganda Seminary in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1886 at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome to be a priest for the Diocese of Alton, his Illinois home diocese, at St. Joseph Church, then moved to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. St. Katharine Drexel donated money to build a church for blacks where Father Tolton was pastor. His cause of death at age 43 was considered heat stroke, Coleman discovered, due to ministering on the streets of Chicago in his wool cassock.

Father Daniel Green, pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in New Orleans and director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries, is proud to bring the play to New Orleans. He said the canonization process is an expensive one, considering how an extensive biography of a candidate’s life has to be prepared as well as medical records to substantiate miracles. To make the process easier not only for Father Tolton but for other current African Americans up for sainthood, it was announced in July 2018 that Xavier University of Louisiana and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies will be hosts and administrators for all black causes for sainthood. Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry will be moderator and chair of the center.

  Advancing the causes of black saints and making them better known is a step in the process. 

“We have put up signs, pictures, been selling prayer cards with prayers for his canonization, highlighted him (Tolton) during Black Catholic history month and have put bulletin inserts and information on our website.  We really want to see these causes move forward,” Father Green said.

The play helps people  know Father Tolton. 

“He is the first recognized black priest in the United States, and he teaches us in the modern-day arena how to overcome adversity and go with the Lord,” Father Green said. “Not only is the play helping to further awareness and the cause of Father Tolton, but it is promoting black Catholic community vocations about a time when we need to promote vocations to make sure we are committed to the church and giving our sons and daughters to serve the church.” 

Coleman said the play changed how his approach to his acting profession from just being a job.

“Now I truly feel I am evangelizing. I am changing peoples’ hearts with this story. … I want people to have vocations, become pastors … If I help people realize their vocation I am happy. I feel I am on a mission to being people get closer to God.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

→ WHAT: Live performance by Jim Coleman of the life of Father Augustus Tolton who is on the path to sainthood. Sponsored by the Office of Black Catholic Ministries in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

→ WHEN: Nov. 30, 10 a.m. for students; Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. 75 minutes long.

→ WHERE: Tulane University McAlister Auditorium, 31 McAlister Drive, New Orleans.

→ TICKETS: Student performance $20; other performances general admission $25; VIP $45.

→ DETAILS: Visit toltondrama.com. 861-6207.

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