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New film on Venerable Augustus Tolton premiering June 2 in Chicago

The documentary, featuring never-before-released letters from the nation's first openly Black Catholic priest, will screen at the DuSable Museum.

Tickets are on sale for the premiere of a new documentary film on Venerable Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first openly Black Catholic priest.

“Tolton Speaks: The Life and Letters of Fr Augustus Tolton” from Stella Maris Films will screen on Sunday, June 2, at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago.

“Born into slavery and prohibited from entering any seminary in the United States, Fr. Tolton defied social expectations and the odds to become America's first recognized African-American Roman Catholic priest,” reads an event description from the filmmakers.

“Learn about this man's inspirational story through expert interviews, historical documents and his words as told through never-before-seen letters. It's a film you will not want to miss!”

The film, directed by David Michael Warren, is based on the personal letters of Tolton, previously seen only by officials involved with his sainthood cause. Fundraising for the film began under the watch of Fr A. Gerard Jordan, O.Praem., who died in 2022 as the project continued to gain steam.

Tolton was born into slavery in 1854, before escaping from Missouri with his family to freedom in Southern Illinois. Baptized a Catholic, he later pursued the priesthood and was ordained in Rome following rejection from U.S. Catholic seminaries due to his race.

The new film delves into correspondences between Tolton and his confreres throughout his life, including the priests and bishops who helped sponsor his education as well as friends who helped him navigate his relatively short (and troubled) time as a priest. That period of his life began in the Diocese of Alton—now the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.

Following conflicts in his hometown of Quincy with local White Catholic priests and Black Protestants, Tolton transferred to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he founded the city’s first Black Catholic parish, St. Monica’s, in 1894. He would minister there until his death from a heat stroke three years later at age 43. 

Tolton’s cause for canonization was opened in 2010 by the Archdiocese of Chicago, and is also being supported by the Diocese of Springfield and the Diocese of Jefferson City (where he and his family had been enslaved). 

Now one of seven African Americans on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, Tolton was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2019. A Vatican-confirmed miracle from Tolton's intercession could make him the first beatified African American in history. An investigation of a possible miracle was reported stateside as recently as 2022.

Sunday’s film premiere in Chicago, led by the Tolton Spirituality Center, will begin at 2pm CT, followed by a Q&A with his canonization cause’s diocesan postulator Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Joseph N. Perry of Chicago and Dr. C. Vanessa White of Chicago Theological Union, who has written on Tolton’s legacy.

Tickets are $35 and can be purchased online on the website of Our Lady of Africa Catholic Church. Proceeds go to support the TSC, which promotes Tolton’s legacy and his sainthood cause. The Archdiocese of Chicago has previously indicated that should Tolton be beatified, the location will also become his major shrine.

The film is also scheduled to screen on Friday, June 21, during the Archbishop Lyke Conference, a Black Catholic liturgy and ministry event taking place that week at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Grapevine, Texas.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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