EWTN preparing show on Venerable Augustus Tolton

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Valerie Jennings, vicariate coordinator for Vicariate VI, is interviewed by Michael O’Neill, executive producer and host of EWTN’s “They Might Be Saints” on June 8, 2021, at St. Elizabeth Church, 50 E. 41st St., for an upcoming episode on Venerable Augustus Tolton while producer Tommy Cheely and EWTN director of photography Mark Davis look on. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For several days in June, the host of EWTN’s “They Might Be Saints” visited the Archdiocese of Chicago with a crew to film interviews and actor reenactments for an upcoming episode on the life of Venerable Augustus Tolton.

Executive producer and host Michael O’Neill, a Chicago native, examines the lives of men and women of faith on the path to sainthood and the search for canonization miracles. There are over 100 canonization causes open in the United States, although not all are active.

Tolton is the first African American ordained for the priesthood in the United States. The Archdiocese of Chicago opened his cause for canonization in 2010.

In June 2019, Pope Francis advanced the cause when he issued a decree declaring him “venerable.” The title “venerable” recognizes that he lived a life of heroic virtue.

Once it is confirmed that one miracle has been granted by God through the intercession of Tolton, he will be declared “blessed.” A second miracle may be required for canonization.

Unexplained physical healings have been reported to the cause and are under investigation.

When O’Neill pitched the idea of the show to EWTN, Tolton was on his list of someone to feature.

“With Father Tolton, his story of being a slave and the escape to freedom. … Then he goes to Catholic school and is bullied in school yet he persists and is given the help from the priests there to apply to all the seminaries in the United States and he’s rejected from everywhere. Then he goes to Rome and is sent right back to his former community,” O’Neill said. “His story is absolutely amazing. You couldn’t make this story up.”

Tolton makes a great person of faith to focus on in our time, O’Neill said.

“We are delighted EWTN has included Father Augustus Tolton and his canonization cause among their series on the saints and saints-in-the-making,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Tolton’s cause. “Given the broad reach of their Catholic programming, we are excited about the possibilities of Tolton’s reach out into the public.”

While in the archdiocese, O’Neill and his team interviewed several local Catholics about the life and inspiration of Tolton. They also filmed reenacted scenes from Tolton’s life.

St. Philip Neri Church, 2132 E. 72nd St., was used as a backdrop for scenes in which Tolton was preaching in Quincy. The crew also filmed some scenes from his time in Catholic school and used a forested area to depict scenes of Martha Tolton fleeing to freedom through the prairie with her children.

“We were able to repurpose those locations and make them look like we wanted them to,” O’Neill said.

Before his show “They Might Be Saints,” O’Neill became known as the “Miracle Hunter” who researched and chronicled miracles around the world. His interest in miracles fueled the idea for this series.

“I thought, ‘Who are the people who care most about miracles?’ And those are sainthood causes,” O’Neill said. “For each and every sainthood cause, they are looking for two miracles to show that their person is in heaven with God. So I hatched the idea that we would tell the story of Americans on the path to sainthood and the search for canonization miracles.”

“And everybody loves a saint story, especially American saints,” he added. “I think we have a sort of Catholic pride when we see someone who has walked on our own soil.”

People are attracted to learning the stories of people of heroic virtue who lived on the same land they did.

“What’s very interesting is that unless there is a miracle, in the case of venerables, then that person will not advance,” O’Neill said. “So if people don’t know about the potential saints, then they won’t be praying for those miracles. So that’s one of the goals of this series. We want people to know who is out there and who they might seek out for their intercession.” 

The saints and holy women and men provide nourishment and inspiration for those of us striving for holiness, he said.

For example, the saints serve as models of people who followed Christ and made it to heaven. They inspire us to believe if they can do it, so can we, O’Neill said.

“And then, of course, the saints are intercessors for us,” he said. “When we’re in times of trouble and need or need inspiration, praying to the saints is, I think, a great thing the church has done over the centuries.”

Often “They Might Be Saints” airs episodes on the feast or day of death of the person they are profiling, which would mean this episode could air in July of 2022.

“But there’s a chance that it would air much sooner,” O’Neill said. “I know EWTN is excited about this episode, so they might try to show it even before that.”


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