On Saturday, January 29, San Francisco’s Star of the Sea parish will host “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” a one-man dramatic presentation by actor Jim Coleman.  The play presents the story of the Venerable Augustus Tolton, born into slavery in 1854.

The son of slaves Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane Chisley, Augustus was baptized at St. Peter’s Church near Rensselaer, Missouri.  In later life, Father Tolton recounted the family’s harrowing flight to freedom. His father escaped first, in 1864, and joined the Union army as the civil war raged. His mother followed soon after, escaping at night across the Mississippi River. The Tolton website says: “With her three young children, she crossed the Mississippi in a boat with one oar. After dodging Confederate bullets, she and her children then ran all the way to the town of Quincy, in the free state of Illinois.”

The family settled in Quincy, and Augustus grew in his Catholic faith. He enrolled in St. Boniface School but left after a month due to harassment. Augustus was befriended by an immigrant Irish priest, Father Peter McGirr, who allowed Augustus to enroll in St. Peter’s parochial school. The move faced racial hostility, but Father McGirr stood firm. As his Catholic faith deepened, Augustus studied privately with the priests. Eventually he applied to seminaries all over the United States, but was denied entry to each one. Father McGirr helped Augustus  enter the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. He was ordained in 1886, at age 31.

Father Tolton prepared to serve as a missionary in Africa and studying languages and customs, but his superiors sent him back to the United States to serve the black community.  Father Tolton ended up in Chicago. He led the development and administration of the Negro “national parish” of St. Monica’s Catholic Church on the city’s south side.  Under his direction, the congregation grew from 30 to 600 parishioners. Further trials followed: jealousy from the local Catholic priests because of his success, but also opposition from the local Protestant ministers who were threatened by his appeal to non-Catholic blacks.  He was known as “Good Father Gus.”  He died in 1897, at age 43. Father Tolton was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2019, and his cause for canonization is ongoing.

Father Tolton is brought to life by actor Jim Coleman, best known for his role of Roger Parker in the hit Nickelodeon show My Brother and Me. In 2018, Mr. Coleman told the Los Angeles Sentinel: “I speak to a lot of people after the show – black, white, every race and nationality – and they all say that it is relevant, that they are encouraged to move forward and do what they need to do. [Tolton] motivates people to just keep going no matter what your dreams or desires. Just keep moving forward, God has a plan for you….”

Watch Mr. Coleman talking about Tolton.

Tolton: From Slave to Priest will be presented January 29 at 6:00 pm at Star of the Sea Church at 4420 Geary Blvd., in San Francisco. Tickets are $20 for adults; children under 12 are free. Tolton is suitable for children age 10 and up. For tickets go here and select Fr. Tolton Presentation, or call 415-751-0450 or email mariella@starparish.com.

– by Gibbons Cooney