By Robert Alan Glover
Catholic News Service
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Father Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest ordained for a diocese in the United States, was born into slavery and endured myriad obstacles, both inside the Catholic Church and out, as he relentlessly followed his call from God.
Nashville filmmaker Chris Foley, inspired by the story of Father Tolton’s life, has written and directed a short film, “Across,” about the Tolton family’s escape from slavery.
“I spent about three years developing and writing the film, beginning with a short article I read about Father Tolton, then I attended a talk on him in Chicago given by Bishop Joseph Perry in 2015,” Foley told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.
Bishop Perry, a Chicago auxiliary bishop, who has family from Nashville, is postulator for Father Tolton’s sainthood cause, which was opened in 2010 by Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, giving the priest the title “servant of God.”
“It was at the talk that I first mentioned my goal of making a film about ‘Gus’ – as I now call him – to Bishop Perry, but I don’t think he took me seriously,” recalled Foley.
Serious he certainly was because, said Foley, “this is a man who became a role model for priests – black and otherwise – in this country.”
Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 on a plantation near Brush Creek, Missouri. He was baptized at St. Peter Church near Hannibal, Missouri.
His father left to try to join the Union Army during the Civil War; he later died of dysentery, according to accounts Father Tolton told friends and parishioners. In 1862, his mother, Martha, escaped with her children – Augustus, Charley, Samuel and Anne – by rowing them across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. They settled in Quincy.
While the family was living in Quincy, a parish priest allowed young Augustus to attend the parish school over the objections of white parishioners. There he learned to read and write and was confirmed at age 16.
He was encouraged to discern his vocation to the priesthood by the Franciscan priests who taught him at St. Francis College, now Quincy University, but could not find a seminary in the United States that would accept him.
He eventually studied in Rome at Pontifical Urban University. He was ordained for the Propaganda Fidei Congregation in 1886 at age 31 and was expecting to become a missionary in Africa.
Instead, he was sent back to Quincy, where he served for three years before going to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1889. He spearheaded the building of St. Monica Church for black Catholics. Dedicated in 1894, the parish grew from 30 parishioners to more than 600 under Father Tolton’s energetic leadership. He died after suffering heat stroke on a Chicago street July 9, 1897.
“In the end, Father Tolton’s story is a great example of suffering, because he never finished a church he was building in Chicago and died at age 43 from heat exhaustion during a heat wave in 1897,” said Foley.