Leonardo Defilippis, the president and founder of Saint Luke Productions in the state of Washington, remembers when he had a chance a few years ago to approach Archbishop José Gomez to discuss a play he had recently completed and had been touring.
Tolton: From Slave to Priest chronicles the life and times of Father Augustus Tolton, born into slavery in 1854 before becoming the first African American Roman Catholic priest. Since Defilippis wrote and directed it, it has been presented more than 100 times since it debuted in 2017.
“When I told him about this, he looked at me and said, ‘I love Father Tolton,’ ” Defilippis said of Gomez. “That really touched me. I’ve been wanting to bring this to Los Angeles ever since. Finally, that door is opened. It’s very exciting.”
During the heart of Black History Month, and less than a year after Father Tolton was declared venerable by Pope Francis, moving him forward in the path towards sainthood, this one-man, multimedia presentation channeled through actor James Coleman has at least four public shows set this month.
Performances have been scheduled at St. Martin of Tours Church in Brentwood (Feb. 10), St. Andrews Church in Pasadena (Feb. 12), American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach (Feb. 13) and St. Monica Church in Santa Monica (Feb. 15) plus a private show at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo was added for Feb. 18. More public shows may be forthcoming….
In August of 2006, a rather unassuming 255-page book written by Sister Caroline Hemsath for Ignatius Press titled From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897): First Black American Priest of the United States, was for many the first real knowledge of what Tolton endured.
St. Katharine Drexel, the second American-born saint canonized by the Catholic Church, was one of those interviewed by Hemsath before her 1955 death to talk about her interactions with Father Tolton.
The book starts to tell the story of someone born in Brush Creek, Missouri, with a baptismal record that simply reads: “A colored child born April 1, 1854, son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, property of Stephen Elliott.”
After his father went to fight for the Union Army and was presumed dead in the Civil War, his mother took her three children and crossed the Mississippi River about 100 miles north of St. Louis, on a boat with just one oar, dodging Confederate bullets. They escaped to Quincy, Illinois, a free state….
Defilippis, whose current touring dramas for Saint Luke Productions have focused on St. John Vianney, St. Faustina, St. Maximilian, and St. Augustine, said years ago he had been given a copy of the Hemsath book from a parish priest in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, and it has been on a shelf in his office. When contemplating his next project, Defilippis said he noticed the gaze of Father Tolton’s eyes off the cover of Hemsath’s book.
“I said to myself, ‘I think I’m being called to do him,’ ” said Defilippis….
The above comes from a Feb. 5 story by Tom Hoffarth in Angelus News.