Veteran actor portrays the nation’s first African-American Catholic Priest
Another little-known character in Black History comes to light through Jim Coleman’s portrayal of Father Augustus Tolton.
The theatrical drama, “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” features Coleman depicting the commitment and struggles of the first recognized African-American Catholic Priest in the U.S. Presented by St. Luke’s Productions, the play completed shows at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove on Jan. 28 and now continues its nationwide tour to tell the inspiring story of the remarkable Tolton.
Coleman, like many others, was initially unaware of Tolton’s historical role, but upon learning more about him realized that the priest’s journey connects to current events in America.
“As an African-American, I pride myself on knowing our history and this was a part of our history that I didn’t know about. The more I delved into it, it is so relevant to what is going on right now today,” said the veteran television and film actor, who currently stars as James Green on “The Quad” TV series.
“Something that happened over 100 years ago, a Black man just trying to become a priest and he was hit with racism and obstacles and wherever he went, there was opposition. He had to go to another country to actually become a priest and come back to be a priest in America and with the racial divide the way it is right now, it’s amazing that it’s still happening over 100 years later. It’s almost as if we’re not advancing, we’re declining.”
Tolton was born a slave in Missouri in 1854. Eight years later, his mother, Martha, escaped with her children to Quincy, Illinois, and Tolton started working in a tobacco factory at the age of nine. In 1865, he entered Boniface School but left after one month due to harassment and staff complaints. Moving to St. Peter’s School, Tolton was confirmed at age 16 and graduated at 18.
As he sought to enroll in a seminary, Tolton faced countless rejections due to his race. He was eventually accepted as a seminarian at the Propaganda in Rome and was later ordained a priest. Tolton returned to the U.S. and dedicated himself to assisting the Black community in Quincy as well as gaining new converts to the faith.
However, he endured tremendous prejudice and discrimination, both within and outside the church, which led to his request for transfer to the diocese of Chicago. Assigned to minister to Blacks in the city, Tolton became pastor of St. Monica Church. He worked feverishly to construct a new edifice along with walking the streets to minister to the poor. Tolton’s devotion took a hard toll on his health and he died at the age of 43.
Despite incredible hardships, Tolton remained true to his calling of being a priest and his actions can inspire people today to fulfill their dreams, noted Coleman.
“I speak to a lot of people after the show — Black, white, every race and nationality – and they all say that it is relevant, that they are encouraged to move forward and do what they need to do,” he shared.“As a matter of fact, one of the themes in the show says how [Apostle] Paul built the church, but he was a little man. He just kept moving forward. [Tolton] motivates people to just keep going no matter what your dreams or desires. Just keep moving forward, God has a plan for you.”
Describing his excitement about drama, Coleman added, “I’m feeling very blessed to be standing there portraying Augustus Tolton. At this point, to be able to go on the road, at my age, and portray a relevant character in history and bring people closer to God, I think that’s important. This is definitely a story that needs to be told.”
To learn more about “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” visit stlukeproductions.com.