The unlikely story of a sculptor and Father Tolton

By John Shaughnessy | Contributor
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The unlikely story of a sculptor and Father Tolton

This is the unlikely story of the connection between Tucker, a sculptor from the countryside of Hendricks County, Indiana, and Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery and became a source of hope, humanity and Christ’s love, especially to Black Catholics in Chicago in the late 19th century.
Forrest Tucker works on a sculpture of Venerable Augustus Tolton in this undated photo. (John Shaughnessy/The Criterion)
A model of the sculpture Forrest Tucker is creating of Venerable Augustus Tolton reaching down to help a suffering woman. (John Shaughnessy/The Criterion)

DANVILLE, Indiana — The thrill couldn’t get any better, or so Forrest Tucker thought.

As a longtime welder for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a talented sculptor, Tucker was honored to be asked in 2019 to create a lasting tribute to the four race car drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Tucker sculpted four bronze bricks in honor of A. J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears and Hélio Castroneves, with their names and the years they won the race. The bricks have been placed among the Speedway’s original red bricks at the start-finish line.

“To do something in the racing world that is part of the history of the Speedway, and my part will be there long after I’m gone — it’s the honor of a lifetime,” said the now-retired Tucker, 65. “I got a chance to meet the drivers and had some good conversations with them. I got a really close look at who they are as people. They’re all unique, as Christ made us.”

Tucker paused before adding, “I thought it would be the pinnacle of my sculpting career. Now, I realize it wasn’t.”

Tucker has a deeper spiritual connection to someone he also regards as an American hero, someone who is on the path to potential sainthood, someone whose remarkable life has challenged Tucker to create a sculpture that captures the essence of that person.

This is the unlikely story of the connection between Tucker, a sculptor from the countryside of Hendricks County, Indiana, and Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery and became a source of hope, humanity and Christ’s love, especially to Black Catholics in Chicago in the late 19th century.

Tolton’s sainthood cause began in 2010. In 2019, Pope Francis declared him “venerable,” a sign that the church recognizes that he lived a life of heroic virtue. But Tucker didn’t know anything about the first recognized priest of African descent in the United States until he experienced a small, personal moment of doubt and fear in 2021.

At the time, Tucker’s friend, Cheryl Shockley, had organized a blood drive in honor of her youngest child, Jack, who had been murdered the previous year during an attempted robbery outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Indianapolis.

There were a few reasons why Tucker was reluctant to go to the blood drive. His wife, Dawn, has struggled with multiple sclerosis for most of their married life, and Tucker doesn’t like to leave her on weekends when he doesn’t have caregiver help. And the blood drive was in the gym at Christ the King Parish on the north side of Indianapolis, a long drive from Danville. And he had never donated blood and wasn’t fond of needles.

Still, the pull of friendship with Cheryl and her husband, Steve, was enough to make him go.

“Cheryl was greeting people as they came in,” Tucker recalled. “She had a table full of prayer cards and pictures of saints. And one of the prayer cards was Father Tolton. She asked me if I’d ever heard of Father Tolton. I said no. She said, ‘Forrest, I think we need to pray to Father Tolton. We need prayers for this country, for the healing — because there’s so much violence being done.”

“Cheryl is one of those persons when they say to do something, you say yes. So, I took a prayer card. When my number came up to give blood, I sat in the chair, and I was kind of nervous when I saw the tubes and needles. The technician told me to just relax. I decided to pray to Father Tolton. It just came to me. I closed my eyes and prayed to Father Tolton, who I knew nothing about,” Tucker said.

As he prayed, “I had the strongest image that came to my mind of Father Tolton with this grieving woman. It was so different and vivid and strong. It was just these two people in a moment. It was a strange thing that happened to me. There were 100 people in that gym. People were talking, and kids were throwing balls, but I didn’t hear any noise during that time. When I got up, I gave Cheryl a hug. I didn’t tell her about it,” he said

As he drove home, Tucker couldn’t get the image of Tolton and the grieving woman out of his mind.

Tolton’s life left Tucker in awe.

“He was born a slave in 1854. His mother was on a plantation where the plantation owners were Catholic. That was an aspect that caught me off guard — Catholic slave owners,” Tucker said, shaking his head in dismay. “They educated their slaves and catechized their slaves. They went to Mass. Father Tolton learned how to read Scripture. His mother was a very faithful and devout Catholic, and she had an influence on him to not lose his faith, his love of God.”

Tucker was also touched by the courage of Tolton’s mother in gaining freedom for herself and her three children. She escaped during the Civil War by leading her children across the Mississippi River and into Quincy, Illinois, with the help of Union soldiers in 1862.

“The first place they went was to a Catholic church,” Tucker marvels. “And the church helped them.”

Embracing the faith that his mother loved, Tolton sought to serve God and the Catholic Church as a priest. Yet no seminary in the United States would accept a Black man. Through the influence of his pastor, Father Peter McGirr, and other priests in Quincy, a seminary in Rome invited him to pursue studies for the priesthood. Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886.

When he returned to Quincy at age 31, the newly ordained Tolton became the first recognized priest of African descent in the United States. He ministered to both Blacks and whites, even in the face of continued racism. After moving to Chicago, he served the city’s Black Catholic community until his death due to heat stroke in 1897 at the age of 43.

“Perseverance comes to mind about him,” Tucker said. “Despite what he went through, the obstacles that were in his way, he never wavered in his faith. He let nothing separate him from God. That was one of the big takeaways for me.”

While Tolton’s life was marked by an undeniable perseverance, the image of him extending his hand in compassion to a grieving woman persisted in the mind of Tucker.

“At first, it didn’t even come to my mind that this was a sculpture,” Tucker said. “But I kept thinking about it. The image lingered, but I didn’t tell anybody about it, not even Dawn, and I usually tell her everything. I felt if I talked about it, it was like giving away a secret something that was between me and God.”

Tucker’s most personal pieces have always been related to the sacred.

“My best work, my favorite work is always for the church, no matter what it is,” he says. “If I’m making a table that will sit in the corner of the parish or the Jerusalem cross that’s in the sanctuary of our church, my focus has always been in the church.”

So he turned to the Holy Spirit for guidance about what he should do with his mental image of Tolton and the grieving woman.

“I was praying, ‘Holy Spirit, what am I supposed to do with this?’ The image was too complicated, too detailed. I don’t have the ability to do this as a sculpture. It’s way out of my league,” Tucker said. “The Spirit kept pulling me, and finally I said OK. I said I’ll sculpt this in clay, but it’s not going to look good. It won’t work out. But I said I’ll have faith.

“The blood drive was in December of 2021. I didn’t start sculpting it until May of 2022. I worked on it all summer and fall. I didn’t get it close until October. I finally had a sculpture in clay of the image I saw.”

Working from the premise that a finished sculpture rarely looks the same as it did in the beginning, Tucker shared the clay sculpture with one of his mentors, expecting him to suggest changes to the piece. The mentor told Tucker that he wouldn’t change anything.

Still, Tucker didn’t know what to do with the piece until conversations with two priests in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis led him to schedule a meeting with the person who is leading Tolton’s cause for sainthood, retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago.

“Forrest’s sculpture of Father Tolton is among the only few sculpted figures of Tolton over the years,” Bishop Perry said. “When he showed me his clay model of the sculpture of Father Tolton extending his hand to a downtrodden woman, I immediately became aware that Forrest had captured the temperament of Father Tolton, who ministered all his priesthood to the abject poor in Quincy and in Chicago.

“In a time when it was unlawful for whites and Blacks to mingle in the same spaces without permission, Father Tolton broke through with the Gospel to be a compassionate priest to white and Black alike. In this, he was a pioneer of affirmative race relations in the wake of the Civil War and the troubled period of Reconstruction that placed further restrictions on the movements of freed slaves, former slaves and free people of color.”

Bishop Perry sees similar qualities in Tucker and Tolton.

“He shares with Father Tolton those Christian attributes that have the power to change society and the world if people would struggle through their fears of one another,” said Bishop Perry, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. “Forrest’s sculpture brings complement to this cause for sainthood of our beloved first priest of African descent to labor in the United States.”

The next step in Tolton’s sainthood cause would be for him to be beatified and declared “blessed.” That usually happens when the church recognizes that someone’s intercession has led to a miraculous healing. Another such intercession can lead to sainthood.

As for Tucker, his next step is bringing the sculpture to life in bronze. He plans to finish the process so he can share it with Bishop Perry at the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July.

“Then I’ll let them use it, in whatever way they decide,” Tucker said.

One of the questions that he gets regarding the sculpture is, “Who is the woman depicted in that moment?”

Tucker said it’s a mystery to him.

“Someone asked me, ‘Is this Cheryl?’” he says, referring to his friend whose son was murdered. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Someone then asked, ‘Well, is it Mary?’” he said. “Well, it could be. It could be any grieving woman. ... Her expression is at the exact moment when she turns to God. She’s finally turning toward God. She doesn’t have any strength in her body but to lift her hand. Tolton’s hand, his palm is up. She has to put her hand in his. She turns and looks at God through the eyes of Tolton.”

This article first appeared in the Criterion, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.  Reprinted with permission.


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