Inspiring story of journey from slavery to priesthood coming to McVinney stage

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The life story of the first ordained black diocesan Catholic priest in the United States will soon be coming to the Bishop McVinney Auditorium in Providence.

“Tolton: From Slave to Priest” is scheduled to be held on Sept. 9, at 3 p.m., and will be the only Rhode Island performance of the one-man stage play that is currently on a national tour.

The local performance is being sponsored by the Diocese of Providence’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry.

“We are excited to host the production of ‘Father Augustus Tolton: From Slave to Priest,’ the first ordained African American priest, in America,” said Patty January, the coordinator of the diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry.

“Upon seeing this production, it is my hope that the audience will be inspired by Father Tolton’s life of service to the Church and his sisters and brother and that we as Catholics continue to grow in our faith journey as loving and caring disciples for Christ in service to all of our sister and brothers,” January said.

The play features actor Jim Coleman — best known for his role of Roger Parker in the hit Nickelodeon show “My Brother and Me” — playing the role of Father Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1854.

Father Tolton’s mother, who was reared Catholic, escaped the farm with her small children and settled in the town of Quincy, Illinois, where the family experienced hardships and racial prejudice.

Despite those obstacles, the young Augustus Tolton — who was baptized in Missouri — had a dream of becoming a priest. Every seminary in the United States rejected him, but he persevered in pursuing his vocation.

He traveled for his seminary studies, and was ordained on Easter Sunday 1886 at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. He was 31 years old. After returning home to Illinois, Father Tolton was assigned to the Diocese of Alton — now the Diocese of Springfield — where he first ministered to his home parish in Quincy.

Father Tolton was later assigned to Chicago, where he led the establishment in 1893 of St. Monica’s Church as a black national parish church in Chicago’s South Side.

Father Tolton served people of all races, including the former slaves who flocked to Chicago. Father Tolton saw the Catholic Church as an antidote to the discrimination and rejection that he experienced in his own life.

“It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors,” he said. “We should welcome all people into the Church, not send them away.”

On July 8, 1897, Father Tolton collapsed from heat exhaustion and died the following day. He was 43 years old. His funeral was said to have included more than 100 priests. Per his wishes, he was buried in Quincy, in the priests’ lot in St. Peter’s Cemetery.

The cause for Father Tolton’s beatification and canonization was officially opened in February 2011 in the Archdiocese of Chicago. A year later, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints granted Father Tolton the title “Servant of God.” In 2014, the Archdiocese of Chicago sent a dossier of research into Father Tolton’s life to the Holy See, a step before a candidate for sainthood is declared venerable.

For more information on “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” including to buy tickets, visit https://mcvinneyauditorium.com, or call the McVinney Box Office at (401) 278-4588.