By Antonina Zielinska and Katie Engesser
The first African American ever to be ordained a Catholic priest visited Our Lady of Lourdes in Queens Village Sept. 21 in the form of a live-theater production: “Tolton From Slave to Priest” by Saint Luke Productions.
The story of Father Augustus Tolton begins in slavery in 1854 Missouri. When he was age 8 or 9, his mother ran away with her three young children, including her 20-month-old daughter. They crossed the Mississippi River on a dilapidated boat that some Union men helped them find. Despite never having operated a boat and having Confederate soldiers shooting arrows at them in the night, the family crossed safely and were met by black and white workers on their way to work, who offered them food and directions to Quincy, Ill.
Once in Quincy, the family found the black district, where they were welcomed and helped. Augustus joined his mother and older brother in the cigarette factory.
They attended St. Boniface Church, a German parish with a small black presence. When his mother enrolled Augustus to the all-white parish school, it caused such uproar that in less than a month, he withdrew. At 14, he still did not know how to read, but entered an all-black public school. He was ridiculed for being darker than the others, for being half-orphaned, and for being illiterate. Nonetheless, he made remarkable progress.
An Irish priest, Father Peter McGirr, came to be Tolton’s pastor at St. Lawrence parish. Father McGirr told Augustus that if he were to enroll in the St. Lawrence parochial school, the priest would assure him that there would be no trouble. Augustus enrolled and received extra academic help. Father McGirr pacified the parishioners with homily, after homily on the meaning of being a good Christian.
Despite his eventual acceptance into a predominantly white parish, the seminary would be a whole new challenge. Augustus felt and wanted to answer his vocation, but no seminary in the United States would accept him. Eventually, with the help of Father McGirr and other priests, young Augustus made his way to Rome to be educated and ordained. The young former slave dreamed of being a missionary in Africa, inviting other young men into the fold of the priesthood.
Instead he was sent back to his homeland. Although he did not want to go, the young priest embraced his ministry fully, becoming a pastor that loved all people, holding no grudges.
An American-Born Black Saint
Father Tolton was declared a “Servant of God” in 2012 and his cause for canonization is ongoing. If he is declared a saint, he would be the first black, American-born saint.
Jim Coleman plays Father Augustus Tolton in the one-man multimedia drama, currently on national tour.
Coleman never heard of Father Tolton’s story before his involvement with the production. Now he feels a special connection with the 19th century priest. In his 30 year acting career, Coleman said he has never felt as fulfilled as he does when playing Father Tolton.
“For this particular role, it takes a lot of prayer,” Coleman said. “I pray and I ask Father Tolton to allow me to step out of the way so that he can tell his story.”
“To be allowed to tell this story is a very humbling experience for me,” he said. “I can’t tell his story; he has to tell his story. So I have to release who I am, give up being an actor and trying to perform.”
Coleman said the story is so important because it personifies Truth.
“Until we see each other as one, we’ll constantly make the same mistakes,” he said. The lesson, he said, is to “forgive our persecutors, pray for those who mistreat us, love those who hate us. We have to come together. … We are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Unconditional Love for Church
It was the diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns that brought the play to Our Lady of Lourdes.
“He endured so much racism, prejudice, his own brother priest who did not support him in any way, shape or form but yet he persevered to be this good and holy priest,” said Father Alonzo Cox, coordinator of the vicariate.
“He loved the Church so much that he endured all of these hardships. We can really get that from his story – now more than ever.”
Among those gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes to experience Father Tolton’s story was Dr. Mirva Chevelier form St. Mary Magdalene parish, Springfield Gardens. She had heard of the play at the National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando last year. So when she found out that the play was coming to Queens, she wanted to make sure that all her fellow parishioners knew of the opportunity.
“That’s part of our black Catholic history,” she said, adding that he is a good candidate for canonization. “In spite of how he was treated he never transferred that negative behavior onto his congregation.”
“He was rejected by his own country and then he was able to come back and help the very same people who rejected him,” said Shermane Stewart-Lester, a former parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes, who know is part of St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.
Ghislaine Chaperon, a parishioner of Our Lady of Snows in North Floral Park and a Haiti native, said she can relate to Father Tolton, having spent 50 years in the US.
“I learned a lot from this prejudice: if you are black you are not fit to be,” she said. “So I understand his story. That is why I came here… He’s already a saint by God so we are the ones that have to appreciate all the things he did for us.”
To see where the show is headed next, or to get more information, go to www.toltondrama.com.