Basilica, St. Agnes to host drama about slave’s journey to priesthood

| October 4, 2018 | 0 Comments

Father Augustus Tolton, played by James Coleman, was the first black priest in the U.S. The play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” will show at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis Oct. 23. Courtesy St. Luke Productions

A production about Father Augustus Tolton, the first known African-American priest in the United States, will be staged in the Twin Cities Oct. 23-25.

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis will host the play 7 p.m. Oct. 23, and St. Agnes School in St. Paul will will have it 7 p.m. Oct. 25.

Declared a Servant of God by the Church in 2012, Father Tolton’s cause for canonization is underway. He was born in 1854 into a Missouri slave family, but his mother escaped with her three children and crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri to Illinois. Father Tolton’s family settled in Quincy, Illinois, where he felt called the priesthood. Since no U.S. seminary would take him due to his skin color, according to historians, he studied in Rome to become a priest.

He returned to serve as a priest in Illinois until his death at age 43 due to heat stroke. Father Tolton was known as a man of prayer and service. 

Delegates from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to the 2017 National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando, Florida, saw a preview of the play “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” about Father Tolton’s life, and they felt inspired to bring it to the Twin Cities.

“The play inspired me because of journey Father Tolton took,” said Mary Noble, one of the organizers of the Black Catholic Ministry in the archdiocese and a parishioner of the Basilica. “I hope [attendees] take away insight into the Catholic faith, that here’s a person that wasn’t deterred by the racial animosity or anything. I’d like for people to come away with the idea that even though people put obstacles in our way, if we lean on our faith, we can overcome anything.”  

Noble said the play responds to the National Black Catholic Congress’ pastoral action plan, which includes learning about the lives of black saints. The Archdiocese of Chicago opened Father Tolton’s cause for canonization in 2011. 

Father Tolton didn’t become a priest to break a color barrier, but to serve the people regardless of skin color, and that stands out to actor James Coleman, who portrays Father Tolton.

“I think his story ranks just as high as any other black, African-American historical figure in America,” he said.  

Coleman, who has appeared in TV commercials and formerly starred in Nickelodeon’s “My Brother and Me” in the 1990s, was asked by a friend to consider the role. He reluctantly approached the opportunity, he said, but accepted the role when St. Luke Productions, the producer of the play, offered it to him in December 2017.

“This role is the first role that really inspires and moves me because it is true story,” Coleman said. “I’ve come to a point that before each and every performance, I actually talk to Father Tolton, and I ask him to take the reins, let him tell the story and allow me just to be the vessel to paint the picture.” 

Leonardo Defilippis, the director of St. Luke Productions and the play, said he was moved by Father Tolton’s story after learning of it while in Illinois about a decade ago for a previous show. When he decided to produce the play, he worked with Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, the postulator, or lead organizer, of Father Tolton’s canonization cause, to learn more about his life.

“He was a beautiful soul,” Defilippis said of Father Tolton.  “He may be one of the most important historical priests in the history of the United States.”

Both Defilippis and Coleman said the production has challenged both Catholic and non-Catholics alike in the performances around the country this year. The first performance took place Nov. 5, 2017, in Chicago with a different actor before Coleman came on board. Based in Washington state, St. Luke Productions is known for several other live dramas about saints, including “Therese,” “Faustina” and “Vianney.”

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