By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – A one-man play detailing the life Father Augustus Tolton is coming to the Diocese of Jackson for two runs, first in March and again in June. “Tolton: from slave to priest,” was written by Leonardo Defilippis, president and founder of St. Luke Productions.
Father Tolton, a former slave, is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. The Archdiocese of Chicago opened his cause for sainthood in 2011, giving him the title “servant of God.”
Born into slavery, he fled with his mother and siblings through the woods of northern Missouri and across the Mississippi River while being pursued by soldiers when he was only 9 years old. The small family made their home in Quincy, Illinois, a sanctuary for runaway slaves.
The boy’s father had died earlier in St. Louis, after escaping slavery to serve in the Union Army.
Growing up in Quincy and serving at Mass, young Augustus felt a call to the priesthood, but, because of rampant racism, no seminary in the United States would accept him. He headed to Rome, convinced he would become a missionary priest serving in Africa. However, after ordination, he was sent back to his hometown to be a missionary to the community there, again facing rampant racism.
He was such a good preacher that many white Catholics joined his black parishioners in the pews for his Masses. This upset white priests in the town, so Father Tolton headed north to Chicago, at the request of Archbishop Patrick Feehan, to minister to the black Catholic community here.
Father Tolton worked to the point of exhaustion for his congregation in Chicago, and on July 9, 1897, he died of heatstroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43.
This play debuted in Chicago in 2017. The promoters of Father Tolton’s cause hope that taking it on a nationwide tour will inspire devotion to the priest and advance the cause. The author first learned of Father Tolton from a priest in the Diocese of Springfield, which includes the town of Quincy where the priest served and is buried.
The Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson invited the tour to Mississippi. A grant from Black and Indian Missions is helping to make the stops possible. “The March showings will be specifically targeted to schools within the diocese. We will have other evening showings in June in cities within the diocese,” said Will Jemison, coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry for the diocese. “The school viewings are free and open to the public,” he added.
On Thursday, March 1, Greenville St. Joseph School will host the play. Then, on Friday, March 2 Madison St Joseph Catholic High School will host. Each location will have two showings, 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Defilippis has created a “very unique art form” that makes it easy for groups anywhere to host the play because of the simple setup. The show ultilizes a multi-media platform so pre-recorded actors seem to interact with the live actor on stage.
When writing the script, Defilippis, who co-wrote the play with his wife, pulled from themes in Father Tolton’s life – perseverance, trust in God, incredible forgiveness and his priesthood.
Defilippis believes the time Father Tolton spent studying for the priesthood in Rome opened him up to the universality of a priest’s ministry. He studied with men from all over the world and saw the church’s history in places like the catacombs, the Coliseum and St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Once he becomes a priest, he’s a priest for all. This is not a segregated situation, it’s not a segregated mindset,” Defilippis said.
The play doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Father Tolton faced, such as severe prejudice against him from fellow priests in Quincy. The post-Reconstruction period was a troubled time for the United States, and tensions and violence were real. Father Tolton himself often spoke of being watched.
Defilippis believes that telling Father Tolton’s story through art is a way to bring light into today’s seemingly dark world.
“The highest form of art is when you not only entertain and inspire, but bring it to another level of what we call evangelization, what actually touches hearts in a deep and impactful way that actually changes lives,” he said. “That’s what we’ve seen with these plays.”
In June, the play will return to the diocese for shows in other locations. Details on those shows will be announced as soon as they are worked out.
(Joyce Duriga, editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, wrote the play descriptions and interviewed the author for Catholic News Service in November, 2017. Excerpts from her story appear above.)
By Maureen Smith