He found freedom in Illinois after fleeing slavery in Missouri. He became an ordained priest in Rome after being rejected by seminaries in the United States. Father Augustus Tolton’s life is a story about perseverance against hardships and persecution that’s being presented in a professional Catholic theater production Tolton: From Slave to Priest at Lamar University March 26 at 7 p.m.
The live drama, performed by actor Jim Coleman and directed by Leonardo Defilippis of Saint Luke Productions, runs 75 minutes and is suitable for ages 10 and older. There is no charge for admission.
Coleman has been a full-time actor for more than 20 years. So getting past the nervousness before performing a role was routine for him. But in his role as Father Augustus Tolton, Coleman said constantly feeling jittery and nervous became the new routine.
“In performing this character, Tolton has come to life in me,” Coleman said. “When I do this role, I feel like I’m being taken over by him. My heart hurts for what he’s gone through.”
Coleman said he prays before going on stage to channel Father Tolton, as Coleman likes to put it, leaving him weak and drained after performing the role.
“I think about Martin Luther King who died at 39 and Augustus Tolton who died when he was 43,” Coleman said. “It doesn’t take a long time in your life to make a difference. You just need to make a difference.”
Defilippis was originally inspired to produce Tolton while on tour in the Diocese of Springfield (Illinois).
“I gave a performance at St. Boniface Church in Quincy, Ill., and there I encountered Augustus Tolton,” Defilippis said. “I immediately began considering his life as a dramatic subject.”
Quincy was the site of Father Tolton’s first ministry as a priest at St. Joseph Church.
Cardinal Francis George, the former Archbishop of Chicago, not only encouraged Defilippis’s idea, but also sent financial support for the project shortly before his death in 2015.
Cardinal George in 2010 introduced a case for sainthood for Father Tolton, who spent six years in Rome studying to become a priest.
Following his ordination, Tolton returned to Illinois where he worked tirelessly to serve people of all races, especially the former slaves who flocked to Chicago. He saw the Catholic Church as the answer to the discrimination and rejection that he experienced in his own life.
“It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors,” Tolton said. “We should welcome all people into the Church, not send them away.”
Defilippis sees Tolton’s life as a heroic example of inspiring reconciliation and peace. He also sees Tolton’s story as a way to encourage vocations and to bring hope to communities in need of healing.
“I pray that all can know Father Tolton’s holiness and friendship,” Defilippis said.
The production is underwritten by a grant from the Black and Indian Mission Office. It is sponsored by the Diocese of Beaumont’s African American Ministry. Gifts to the Bishop’s Faith Appeal help support the good works of this ministry.
The drama will be performed in Lamar’s Theatre Arts Building #101 in Beaumont. For more information, visit www.ToltonDrama.com or contact Linda Duhon-LaCour at 409-924-4306 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.