New documentary presents Tolton in his own words

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2024

(Photo provided)

A new documentary about Venerable Father Augustus Tolton tells his story in a way that it has not been told before: Using his own words.

“Tolton Speaks: Venerable Tolton Through His Words” relies heavily on letters written by Tolton, believed to be the first acknowledged African American priest. It tells his life story, from being born and baptized while enslaved in Missouri, through his harrowing escape in a rowboat across the Mississippi River with his mother and siblings, through his seminary education in Rome and subsequent career in ministry in Quincy, Illinois, and in Chicago, to his death from heat stroke at the age of 43.

David Warren of the Louisiana-based Stella Maris Films directed the film and shepherded the project, the idea which came from Norbertine Father Gerard Jordan, founder of the Tolton Spirituality Center. Jordan died unexpectedly several months after the project began.

Warren said Jordan contacted him after seeing an earlier documentary he made, “A Place at the Table: African Americans on the Path to Sainthood,” which had a segment on Tolton and five other Black Catholics who are being considered for sainthood.

“Initially, Father Gerard said he wanted to make a short film about Tolton and highlight some of the letters Tolton had written but had never been made public before,” Warren said.

But as Warren dug into the project, read the “positio” about Tolton that Bishop Joseph Perry had put together to send to the Vatican,  which began the cause for sainthood, and interviewed experts on Tolton’s life, he knew that the film needed to be feature length.

The film includes interviews with people who have studied Tolton’s life, including Jordan, Bishop Perry and C. Vanessa White, an associate professor of spirituality and ministry at Catholic Theological Union and director of the certificate program in Black theology and ministry.

But the most striking material, Warren said, came from the letters penned by Tolton.

“There was a lot of material in those letters,” Warren said.

They include Tolton’s reflections on his boyhood and education, his time as a seminarian in Rome, and the trials and triumphs of his priestly ministry.

The film covers his youth, when he was driven from one Catholic school by parents who objected to their children learning alongside a Black child and bullied in a public school because he was so much older than the other students before being accepted into a different Catholic school. There he learned, became an altar server and then was tutored by priests to prepare him for a seminary education when he discerned a call to priesthood.

After a fruitless search for a Catholic seminary that would accept a Black student in the United States, Tolton was accepted to the Propaganda Fide — a seminary for missionaries — in Rome. According to his letters, he was thrilled to meet men from all over the world, including Asia and Africa, who were studying for the priesthood. He was prepared to be sent as a missionary to Africa after he was ordained, but the superior of the Propaganda Fide had another idea.

The night before he was ordained a priest, he learned he was to be sent back to Illinois, to minister in Quincy, where he had grown up.

Tolton led a small Black parish in Quincy, but had difficulty raising enough money to keep it afloat. However, his preaching attracted many Catholics, including some affluent donors. That led to problems with one pastor in particular, who wanted Tolton gone.

In a long letter written to the Propaganda Fide, clearly written in several installments, Tolton begs for permission to leave Quincy. Archbishop Patrick Feehan in Chicago had already asked for him to come and minister to Black Catholics in the city, which was booming, and other bishops also had issued invitations.

Throughout the letter, he refers to the priest who was most eager for him to leave as “this blessed German priest” and “this jealous and inadequate priest.”

His pleas — along with his assurances that the bishop of Alton, in whose diocese Quincy was then located, and Archbishop Feehan were in agreement with him coming to Chicago — received a merciful answer, with the statement that he need not wait for formal permission from the Propaganda Fide, he should just go as soon as possible.

Tolton found plenty of work in Chicago, and was successful in ministering to and building up his parish, even starting the construction of St. Monica Church before he died. As in Quincy, he worked at fundraising as well as shepherding his people, and received money and support from Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Blessed Sacrament sisters.

But the work was demanding, and as his people were poor. Tolton, too, lived a simple life, not taking a salary for his position.

In a letter to his friend, Josephite Father John Slattery, rector of St. Joseph Seminary for Colored Missions in Baltimore, Tolton said he wished for “27 Father Toltons or colored priests” who could answer all the requests he had to visit other parts of the country. It would have been “a grand thing,” he said, to be a traveling missionary ministering to Black Catholics around the country.

He died after suffering heat stroke while walking back to his parish from the train station following a priests’ retreat on July 9, 1897.

“Anything that’s good in this film stands on the shoulders of the people who have done the good work that has gone before,” Warren said, at a preview screening arranged by the Tolton Spirituality Center on Feb. 9.

Valerie Jennings, interim director of the center, said the film will have a formal premiere June 2 at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. After that, it will be available for schools and parishes to host screenings.

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