The Diocese of Harrisburg will host a free virtual screening of the short film “Across” later this month, and the event promises to offer a glimpse into the remarkable life of Venerable Augustine Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States.
The 30-minute movie will introduce viewers to pivotal decisions in Tolton’s childhood, as he attempts to escape slavery in 1863. A historical presentation about Father Tolton will follow the screening of the stirring film. Discussion will be led by writer/director Christopher Foley, Bishop Ronald Gainer, and Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause for the canonization of the priest, who was declared Venerable last year.
The virtual event is sponsored by the Diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries. It will take place via the Zoom platform on Friday, July 31 at 6:30 p.m. To receive the Zoom link to the presentation, register online at https://hbgdiocese.formstack.com/forms/across_the_father_tolton_movie.
The short film “Across” is a stand-alone movie that tells the story of 10-year-old Tolton’s attempted escape from slavery in Missouri in 1863. Young “Gus” is devastated when his father flees the plantation to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He tries to convince his mother to take the rest of the family north to freedom, outrunning overseers, slave-catchers and Confederate soldiers to reach free land beyond the Mississippi.
Jaclyn Curran, Coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Ministries, said she learned about the film last September. The Black Catholic Ministry, which falls under the Office of Multicultural Ministries, usually offers one or two workshops a year, she said.
“We have adopted the mission to promote canonization causes of six African Americans that are being considered for canonization. This is particularly important since no African-American has been canonized,” she said.
The office had initially scheduled an in-person screening of “Across” to be held at the Diocesan Center in May, but the event was called off due to Covid-19. The rescheduled event via Zoom “turned out to be a blessing,” Curran said. “By offering a virtual workshop, this workshop is accessible to many more faithful and we are able to have Bishop Joseph Perry as our guest.”
The re-scheduling of the movie screening and its corresponding discussion also proves timely, given the rise of social action against racism in recent weeks.
“God’s time is perfect, and while the intention was to present this sooner, the fact that it worked out this way cannot be overlooked,” Curran said. “I pray that many realize the challenges that have been hurting our Church for many years and that it inspires people to be open and intentional when doing the Lord’s work. One Bible quote that resonates with me is ‘Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I pray we go beyond what is in our hearts and the good intentions, and we can translate this into action.”
“Father Tolton has had a constant presence in the work that I do, and I personally have prayed novenas to him asking for his intercession. All of us can be inspired by Father Tolton and learn so much from him,” Curran remarked. “He stayed true to his vocation, to God’s call and did not take ‘No’ for an answer. When doors were closed, he did not give up, and traveled to Rome to become a priest. His faithfulness and resilience are exactly what we need right now, and I pray that many are inspired by Father Tolton as I am.”
Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) was the first African-American Catholic priest in the United States. A former slave who was baptized and raised Catholic, Tolton studied formally in Rome. He was ordained in Rome on Easter Sunday at the Cathedral Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in 1886.
Father Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Chicago as a black “National Parish Church,” completed in 1893. His success in ministering to black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Catholic hierarchy. “Good Father Gus,” as he was affectionately known, was recognized for his eloquent sermons, his beautiful singing voice and his talent on the accordion.
July 8, 1897, he collapsed as a result of a heat wave in Chicago and died the following day at Mercy Hospital. He was 43. He was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, at his wishes.
On February 24, 2011, the Church officially began the formal introduction of the cause for Father Tolton’s sainthood. On June 12, 2019, Pope Francis authorized the promulgation of a “Decree of Heroic Virtue,” advancing the cause of Servant of God Augustine Tolton and granting him the title “Venerable.” The next stage in the cause would be beatification, prior to canonization.
Curran said she hopes the July 31 event will inspire participants “that in the face of adversity, we keep our eyes on Christ. I hope and pray that Father Tolton may be a source of inspiration to many. I also pray that this inspires attendees in their daily lives: how we think and how we act with those around us.”
Register for the July 31 event at https://hbgdiocese.formstack.com/forms/across_the_father_tolton_movie. See the trailer and learn more about the film’s production, cast and Father Tolton’s life at www.acrossmovie.com.
(Photos courtesy of Across Movie LLC and Jennifer Stalvey.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness