A first, and an inspiration

Orlando-based actor Jim Coleman brings to life the world’s first Black American priest.

Jim Coleman portrays Father Augustus Tolton in a national traveling theater production of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest.” Father Tolton, born into slavery, was the first recognized Black American ordained to the priesthood and is a candidate for sainthood. (CNS photo/courtesy St. Luke Productions via Catholic Review)

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Posted February 14, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

Father Augustus Tolton (1854-97) was born into slavery and became the first recognized Black American man ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Raised Catholic by his mother, Tolton studied formally in Rome because no American seminary would accept him because of his race.

Today, the pioneering priest is a leading candidate for sainthood and would become the first Black American saint (the first of six African Americans under consideration) to be canonized. Pope Francis advanced the cause for his canonization by signing a decree issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints on June 11, 2019.

Orlando-based actor Jim Coleman is currently portraying the groundbreaking and would-be saint in Tolton: From Slave to Priest. Equal parts one-man-show and immersive multimedia experience, the nationally touring play will make a stop in Ocala at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, 5 SE 17th St., Ocala. Presented by St. Luke Productions, the performance is free, but an offering basket will be passed to cover expenses.

“I saw the first Black president in America,” Coleman said. “I saw the first Black woman become vice president, and the first black woman to be a Supreme Court Justice. I would love to see the first black American saint. That would be very inspirational. The fact that I am portraying him would make it even more special.”

Raised Baptist, Coleman said the show isn’t dogmatic though it’s centered on a Black Catholic priest. The production, he said, appeals to people of all faiths and is an inspiring way to celebrate Black History Month. Coleman performs solo on stage, with a cast of characters projected on the screen behind him. He said he has witnessed people’s hearts, minds and spirits transformed during his performances.

“This show is for everyone right now,” he emphasized. “Father Tolton has changed my life. Portraying him started out as a job, but now I see it as a mission.”

Before he became a professional actor, Coleman served in the U.S. Army as a medic. He has appeared in more than 50 national commercials and is best known for portraying Roger Parker in the Nickelodeon series “My Brother and Me.”

The 62-year-old actor said he had his share of struggles before he pursued a full-time acting career. His drama teacher helped him realize his potential as an artist.

“My path was one that was in line for prison rather than performing,” he admitted. “Sherry Mullens saw something in me, and she pushed me, and she encouraged me, and believe it or not, here I am, an actor for over 30 years, full-time.”

Coleman’s role as Tolton has nurtured and emboldened his spirit.

“This show has been a blessing for me. It has changed my heart, my mind and my spirit. I feel renewed and humbled portraying Father Tolton,” he said.

From his birth into slavery as the child of Martha Jane Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton in Missouri, Father Augustus Tolton endured torture, life-threatening fear, brutal child labor, tremendous loss and other trauma. On April 1, 1854, his parents’ masters permitted them to legally marry. Tolton’s mother escaped with him and his siblings to Quincy, Illinois, in 1861. In 1863, he started working in a tobacco factory at the age of 9. His brother Charles died at age 10, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation legally freed slaves in the Confederacy.

But that wouldn’t be the end of Tolton’s struggles. In 1865, as the Civil War was ending, Tolton entered the St. Boniface School in Illinois and was forced to leave a month later because the parish and staff received threats and harassment. Because no American church would accept him, he received his Holy Orders at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome on April 24, 1886 and conducted his first Mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica the next day. He returned as a missionary to the United States, in Quincy, Illinois. On July 18 that year, he became pastor of St. Joseph Church.

“His story is one of perseverance, tragedy and triumph,” Coleman said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things. Some of the things that we consider difficult, aren’t that difficult at all if we compare our problems to the struggles Father Tolton endured during his life.”

To learn more about the show and its nationwide tour, visit stlukeproductions.com/shows/tolton

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