EWTN will release on Wednesday a short film on the early life of Venerable John Augustus Tolton – the first African American priest – whose cause for canonization progressed in June. “ACROSS: The Father Tolton Movie” will debut 10 p.m. ET Dec. 18 on EWTN. It will showcase the boyhood story of Tolton and his journey from a Missouri slave to a freeman in Illinois.
Prior to the film, a discussion will be held by Nashville filmmaker Christopher Foley, the movie’s writer and director, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, the diocesan postulator for Tolton’s sainthood cause. This will take place at 8 p.m. with host Father Mitch Pacwa.
The 36-minute film is in preparation for a full-length feature, which Foley will start producing this summer. He told CNA that the movie is called ACROSS for two reasons – the cross that Tolton carried, and the obstacles he had to conquer.
“He had to go across the ocean to get ordained. He had to get across the Mississippi River to escape slavery, but he had to carry across his entire life because he stood out and was different,” Foley said.
The young Tolton entered St. Peter’s Catholic School in Quincy, Illinois, with the help of the school’s pastor, Fr. Peter McGirr. The priest went on to baptize Tolton, instruct him for his first Holy Communion, and recognize his vocation to the priesthood.
Because of his ethnicity, no American seminary would accept Tolton, so he studied for the priesthood in Rome. When Father Tolton returned to the U.S. after his ordination in 1889, thousands of people lined the streets to greet him. A brass band played hymns, and black and white people processed together into the local church.
Father Tolton was the first African American to be ordained a priest. He served for three years at a parish in Quincy before moving to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics, St. Monica’s, where he remained until his death in 1897.
Foley said the film will explore Tolton’s family dynamic and his childhood. He said Tolton’s mother and siblings were owned by the Elliot family and his father was owned by the neighboring Hagar family. Tolton’s entire family lived in a cabin between the two properties.
“Both families of the owners were Catholic and they made sure that all of their slaves were baptized, which is kind of a weird dichotomy that they could believe in slavery but at the same time understand that these are souls that need to be baptized,” Foley said.
In the movie, Peter leaves the family to join the Union Army when Tolton is 10 years old. Some time afterward, Tolton convinces his mother and siblings to flee to the north. They are then shown outrunning slave-catchers and Confederate soldiers, eventually crossing the Mississippi River to achieve their freedom.
Foley said, while the country continues to face issues of racial inequality, the film has come at the proper time. He said Tolton overcame hatred with acts of love.
“We see a lot of racial angst and discord in our country now. It was so much different back then and worse, but the solution is the same,” he told CNA. “He met hatred and discrimination with love.”
“It was interesting because he was actually one of the reasons he was kind of ousted from his hometown of Quincy. He was told to minister just to black people in Quincy, Illinois and white people started coming to his church and he was fine with that. He welcomed everyone, but that raised the ire of other people. He believed that there’s no hierarchy of races.”
He said the movie has also come at a time of great difficulty in the Church, including the clergy sex abuse scandal. Similarly, he said the story will highlight the Church’s overall good even among villainous men.
“One of our bad guys is a priest who was a racist, but that doesn’t change the goal and mission of the Church as being good,” he said.
“The majority of her priests are good, holy men, like Father Tolton. We need to kind of hold up this example now in the midst of these scandals and say, ‘Hey, most priests are more like Father Tolton than the ones that are making the headlines. We need to raise up those good stories.” Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtue of Fr. Tolton June 12, making him “Venerable”. In a recent newsletter, Bishop Perry said Tolton is a model of civil rights and overcoming racial adversity with Christian virtues.
“Father Tolton shows us Christians how to get through to the Kingdom, surviving the apparent contradictions of life with our faith, hope, and love intact,” said Perry.
“The unfinished business of racial reconciliation in America is inspired by Father Tolton’s sense of openness to walk amidst and serve both black and white at a time, post Civil War-Reconstruction, socially not yet ripe for interaction between the races. He was ahead of his time in leading both black and white under the roof of his Church while being resented for it by pockets of Church and society of his time.” EWTN