Former slave’s priestly story comes to life across diocese

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His name wasn’t even mentioned on his baptismal record. No U.S. seminary wanted him.

Rome welcomed him with open arms, however, then returned him post-ordination to the same free, but prejudiced state he left. That gave his name a permanent tagline behind it: the U.S. Church’s first recognized black priest.

Some 150 years later, Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton’s vocation story and priesthood is preserved in a few ways. There’s the 1970s biography that includes sources like St. Katharine Drexel and others who personally knew the priest, the 48-page graphic novel released in 2015 to introduce the future saint to younger audiences and undoubtedly the Father Tolton Guild promoting his canonization cause.

‘Tolton: From Slave to Priest’

The life of Fr. Augustus Tolton, whose cause for canonization is at the “Servant of God” stage, will come to life in a 75-minute multimedia play.

SOLD OUT 4 p.m., Jan. 13 at Helen Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington St., Phoenix, (602) 258-8129

• 6 p.m., Jan. 14 at St. Andrew the Apostle, 3450 W. Ray Rd., Chandler,
(480) 899-1990

• 7 p.m., Jan. 15 at Brophy College Preparatory, 4701 N. Central Ave., Phoenix,
(602) 264-5291, (free will)

• 7 p.m., Jan. 18 at St. Thomas Aquinas, 13720 W. Thomas Rd., Avondale,
(623) 935-2151

Cost: $10; Contact venue for tickets.

toltondrama.com

Come January, Phoenix-area residents of all faiths will have a more intimate way to learn about the man who was also the youngest son, but the middle child. “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” a live one-man drama that involves elaborate multimedia interactions, is coming to two parishes, a theater and three Catholic high schools Jan. 13-18.

“We made the whole thing very colorful with backgrounds in historical places,” said Leonardo Defilippis, Saint Luke Productions’ founder, who wrote and directed the play.

Be forewarned: he also stuck to the language of the day, so publicity material suggests “Tolton” audiences be ages 10 and older. Also look for a singing element. The music score is original.

Defilippis said audiences are surprisingly impressed with the production’s beauty. They’re also equally educated about a part of American history from the oppressed side’s point of view.

Review: The Catholic Commentator (Baton Rouge)

“[Tolton] breaks the barrier with his persistence in his desire for the priesthood,” Defilippis said. “We see the priesthood is for everyone. He becomes like a light despite all prejudice.”

In fact, it’s people of different races, including an Irish priest, who abet Tolton’s perseverance through slavery, seminary and even priesthood in his own hometown of Quincy, Illinois.

The bishop who is postulating Tolton’s cause and the actor who portrays the slave-turned-priest both hope that far beyond race, audiences will focus on the role of Tolton’s mother.

Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago, described the “indomitable courage” of Tolton’s mother “launching her son on the pages of history.”

Jim Coleman, who is the second actor to portray Tolton, described that moment Martha — Tolton’s mother — launched her escape from slavery as his favorite scene. Martha has three young children with her and guns firing around her as she enters the mighty Mississippi via a “dilapidated rowboat,” Coleman said.

“She continues to persevere and pray and row through the night. I can visualize her being strong for her children as they’re laying down looking up at her,” Coleman said. He’s certain she privately broke down in tears later but maintained strength through persecution.

Hear an interview with the actor

Tolton did the same from age 8 until his death at 43, a span the play covers in 75 minutes. Coleman hopes his portrayal of Tolton reminds audiences that each individual is made in God’s image, a fact that he said is often forgotten as adult stereotypes emerge.

“We have to start looking at each other through a child’s eyes because we’re a human being and we’re all created in God’s image. God created us out of love,” Coleman said.

He called Tolton “a true American story” with his director describing it as a healing and reconciling show.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mass

Jan. 21

3 p.m. Prelude

4 p.m. Mass

St. Mary’s Basilica, 231 N. Third St.

Featuring guest homilist Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, postulator for the Cause for Canonization of Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton.

Bishop Perry, who will be in Phoenix to serve as the guest homilist for the diocese’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Mass, recalled seeing “Tolton” when it premiered in Chicago. He loved how readily the priest’s story was brought to those sympathetic to his struggles.

“He came alive for us and judging from audience comments, it was as if he was in person on stage or we were brought back to the 19th century to meet him in his day and time,” Bishop Perry said.

Phoenix audiences can credit the Arizona performances to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. He is long familiar with the work of Saint Luke Productions and felt the priest “is a hero every Catholic in America should get to know.” Through grace and a strong faith, “Fr. Tolton persevered and witnessed to God’s mercy in a variety of ways and places leaving a rich legacy of Christian virtue from which we could all learn.”

Jill Platt, principal at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, sees “Tolton” as a bridge for students to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day shortly after the performance. Notre Dame will host the play for a private showing for students.

“What I hope our students will take away from this production is the knowledge and grace to know that no matter how insignificant someone’s life may seem, the most unlikely of individuals can change the world regardless of your circumstances,” Platt said.