A Catholic theater company's live drama about Venerable Augustus Tolton introduces the priest to American audiences.
Of the nine American saints in the Catholic Church, none are Black.
That may change soon, ever since Augustus Tolton, America’s first Black Catholic priest, was declared “venerable” – the first step to official sainthood – last year by Pope Francis.
Meanwhile, a scrappy Catholic theater company in southwestern Washington state is finding out how engaging Father Tolton’s story really is.
Leonardo Defilippis, a Shakespearean actor-turned-president of the Battleground, Wash.-based Saint Luke Productions, had been performing one-man shows about a variety of Christian saints around the country for 35 years when Tolton came across his radar.
Within two years, Defilippis had produced a play about the former slave that premiered in late 2017 and appeared about 200 times in 38 states until March. At that point, theaters around the country shut down because of COVID-19.
Then after the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in American streets two months later, interest in Tolton ballooned. Dioceses around the country are asking for a performance, live or recorded. The show may even perform for the Black Congressional Caucus.
“The show is so relevant to what is happening right now,” Defilippis says. “He is one of the most important Black figures in the history of the United States. He is on the track to sainthood. He has gone from called ‘servant of God’ to ‘venerable’ and a couple of miracles have happened.”
Defilippis, now 68, got his start with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland when he was 25. Eventually, he decided to leave, wishing to use his acting ability to the glory of God. In 1980, he came out with a vibrant, one-man presentation of Luke 1-6, which he recited from memory for “The Gift of Peace: The Gospel of Saint Luke.” It drew raves when he performed it in Catholic churches around Oregon. He wrote Mother Theresa, offering to donate the proceeds from his show to her order, but she suggested he perform for free, so the poor could attend.
The actor had assumed that only Catholics were interested in his work, but a 1982 article in the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today alerted Protestants to the budding actor whose hippie-like looks and ability to bring staid scriptural passages to life appealed to many segments of Christianity. Invitations began coming in from around the country and when he performed “Saint Francis: Troubadour for God’s Peace” at Portland’s Civic Auditorium, the sponsoring Archdiocese of Portland was swamped with 5,000 requests.
A year later, Defilippis married Patti Slover, a fellow actress, who worked as his stage manager until their blossoming family – eventually totaling seven children – forced her to stay at home. Four of their offspring are named after the various saints Defilippis was portraying on stage.
Saint Luke Productions (SLP) eventually relocated across the Columbia River to less expensive real estate in Washington state. The theater company, based in a 3,100-square-foot office building and movie studio, expanded into feature films and multiple plays about the saints, hiring a corps of young actors to tour the country.
“We’re unique in doing live drama,” Defilippis says. “We don’t have a home theater, so we go to gyms, prisons, places where we can reach people. Live drama is more intimate and impactful than movies and television. The audience feels it. You see them all weeping. It’s hard to do that in a movie.”
Normally during the summer months, multiple actors in multiple dramas would be performing at churches, prisons and gymnasiums across the country, including the two most recent productions: “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” and “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy” about early 20th century Polish nun and mystic Faustina Kowalska, who was canonized in 2000.
SLP, which turns 40 this year, was hit particularly hard when the coronavirus burst into the U.S. Because it relies on its revenue theater operations to stay open, it is “limping” along, Defilippis says.
But the Tolton production may be what rescues them. Tolton is an obscure figure in American history and even his fellow Black Catholics have hardly heard of him. For now, SLP has the theater franchise, as it were, on Tolton’s life.
Back when the show opened, “I had a hard time booking it because no one had heard of this guy,” Defilippis says. “He should be in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C, but even they don’t know he exists.”
That was then. Because of a surge in demand, Defilippis is trying to raise funds to pay for the filming of the Tolton play next month. Either he’ll livestream the production or have it televised.
“More people are looking to us to perform this,” he says. “[Dioceses in] Houston and Louisiana want it really bad. The bishop from Victoria, Texas, contacted me and he wants this. Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia … we’ve been asked to perform this for the Congressional Black Caucus. There is this growing interest and people are dying to see this thing because of what’s happening in the world today. People are examining racism.”
Tolton’s story is impressive in the sheer number of difficulties he had to overcome. Raised on a plantation near Brush Creek, Mo., he was one of three children born to Martha Jane and Peter Paul Tolton. Their Catholic owners gave their slaves the rudiments of Catholic teaching and had them baptized as Catholics. Once Martha surmised that her husband (who’d gone to fight in the Civil War) was dead, she fled to the Mississippi River where the family found a boat that took them across to Illinois, a free state.
“When Martha and her kids escaped slavery and when they got to Illinois, they sought out the Catholic church,” says Florida actor Jim Coleman, who portrays Tolton for SLP. “That was the only religion they knew. I thought if that was the religion the slave owners had, I’d want no part in it. But she stayed faithful to it. “
The Toltons settled in Quincy. Although Augustus Tolton was clearly a smart child, he was not allowed into decent schools until an Irish priest, Peter McGirr, took pity on him and made sure the boy got an education at a Catholic school. Although he was clearly priest material, Tolton was turned down by every U.S. seminary to which he applied. McGirr went to bat for the young man and persuaded the local bishop to send Tolton to the Vatican where he would receive theological education.
His six years in Rome was a blessed reprieve for Tolton, who picked up several languages along the way and expected to be sent to Africa, where the color of his skin would be welcomed. Instead, he was sent back to Quincy, where he encountered withering opposition from fellow priests because their parishioners were flocking to Tolton’s church.
His bishop transferred him to more hospitable climes in Chicago, where he became widely popular among the city’s burgeoning ex-slave population. After a decade of ministry, he died of heatstroke one broiling July day in 1897.
Defilippis, who already had multiple plays under his belt about saints from French priest John Vianney to Auschwitz martyr Maximilian Kolbe, had been mulling over Tolton’s life after a priest friend had sent him a book about Tolton. He couldn’t get his mind off the story. He paused before a picture of Tolton in his office.
“I was looking at his picture on the wall,” he remembers, “and I was talking to him and I said, ‘I think I am called to do you.’”
That was in 2015. Defilippis went to work, boning up on the lives of Reconstruction-era Black Americans. He also contacted officials in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which, under the late Cardinal Francis George, began pushing for Tolton’s canonization (path to sainthood) since 2010.
“This guy had a good moral life,” Defilippis says. “He lived such a holy life. I got fascinated by it and I committed myself to the show, even though I had no one to play the role. Eighty women auditioned for Faustina from across the country but with Tolton, it was hard to find someone with the gravitas to do it.”
Coleman, now 59, the son of a Baptist minister with little-to-no connection with Catholicism, was one who auditioned.
“I’d never heard of St. Luke Productions or Father Augustus Tolton,” Coleman says. “A friend of mine who works in casting, she called me and said, ‘You have to audition for this.’” She told me it was a one-man stage drama. I said I have not acted in theater for 30 years and I fought against it.”
So Defilippis hired another actor to portray Tolton. The show opened in October 2017 at a handful of Catholic parishes in Oregon before moving on to a performance at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. After the first actor left the show two months later, Coleman got a call from Leonardo and Patti Defilippis asking him to take over.
He only had one month in which to memorize the lines to an 80-minute production. He flew to Washington state in early January and studied the role day and night. He would be the sole actor. Footage with actors playing various characters in Tolton’s life are portrayed on a background screen along with a soundtrack.
Coleman’s opening show, in Washington state, went well enough but an on-the-road show in Bakersfield, Calif., was something else altogether. The day of the first show, Coleman and his stage manager awoke to find out that someone had broken into their truck overnight and stolen the computer that had all the accompanying music and audio that is flashed onto a back screen while Tolton appears live onstage.
Defilippis loaded an older version of the play onto another computer, then flew to Ontario, Calif., the nearest town he could fly into. He then rented a car for the three-and-one-half-hour drive to Bakersfield, pulling up to the church just as the show was scheduled to start. As Defillipis improvised before the audience of 300, the stage manager was reformatting the computer. The play eventually did commence a half hour later.
Coleman, a Southern Baptist who doesn’t ordinarily think of praying to saints, made an exception that day.
“I felt hopeless and I started to pray to Father Tolton. I said, ‘Do what you need to do. I need you to tell your story.’” After Defilippis arrived with a new computer, “I went out and it was a huge success.”
Coleman decided to keep up with his spiritual dialogues.
“I pray and talk to Father Tolton and say I need you to help me to tell the story,” he said. “And when I walk out on stage, I feel he shows up and helps me tell it.”
He wryly notes that his Southern Baptist pastor father always told him he’d be a preacher.
“I fought it and said never. Never. I said I was an actor. But God has His own ways and he has me portraying a priest and telling people about Him,” Coleman said.
Doing road shows with just a stage manager – which is normal for SLP’s road productions – was quite a shift for the actor who was used to more lavish accommodations.
“I’ve starred in shows and been in movies and flown first class everywhere where all I had to do was show up and go to wardrobe and make up,” he says. With the Tolton show, he has to double as a stagehand, helping load and unload the sets, set up the props and literature table and greet the audience. Sometimes there are volunteers to help out. Often there aren’t.
“My intent was to do it for six months and maybe they could find someone else,” he says. “I do TV and film and I just wasn’t ready to go fulltime traveling and doing a one-man show. All that changed after seeing the reactions and how the show moved people and how it moved me.”
Coleman even lost an agent because he wasn’t available anymore for movies or TV shows.
“I told them this story has to be told and I can’t stop until it is,” he said.
One particularly memorable encounter, he says, was in a small Texas town where the audience was 90 percent white and most were only there because their parish was hosting the show.
“A man walked up to me afterwards – dressed as a cowboy – and he said, ‘You got me’ and he started to cry and he walked out. I felt that Father Tolton had touched his spirit.”
Black audience members also tell Coleman that they had never heard of Father Tolton.
“A lot of Black people say, ‘I didn’t know about this; I had no idea and why didn’t anyone tell me?’” he said. “It was such a beautiful story of how he persevered and continued, continued, continued. And I was surprised at the number of Black priests this story is new to. The seminaries in which we’ve done the shows; they’d never heard of him.”
Defilippis believes the Tolton play may go down as one of SLP’s most successful productions, especially when people can attend plays again. The company also does performances for Protestant groups.
“It’s their story, too. He broke ground for so many people,” he says of the potential saint. “It’s been a joy for me to see the beauty of Black Christianity. When Jim does that show for Black communities, Tolton comes like a hero.”
Copyright 2020 Julia Duin
Image copyright 2020 Julia Duin. All rights reserved.
This article is reprinted with the gracious permission of ReligionUnplugged.com, where it was originally published.
About the author: Julia Duin is a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor or reporter for five newspapers, has published six books and has master’s degrees in journalism and religion. She currently freelances out of Seattle for the Seattle Times, Washington Post and other outlets.
About the Author
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