The writer and director of “Across,” a short film that tells the story of Venerable Augustine Tolton’s childhood escape from slavery, hopes it hits viewers on an emotional and life-changing level.
“First and foremost, I want them to be entertained and moved by an incredible true story,” Christopher Foley said of the short film. “To put the impact of a movie into words is often to blunt it. If it is done well, a film will hit people on an emotional level, hit them in the heart. So, I hope that they just come to love Father Tolton as much as I do.”
The Diocese of Harrisburg will host a free virtual screening of “Across” on Friday, July 31 at 6:30 p.m. via the Zoom platform. 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 him will follow the screening. Discussion will be led by Foley, Bishop Ronald Gainer, and Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause for the canonization of Tolton, who was declared Venerable last year.
The virtual event is sponsored by the Diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries, and promises to offer a glimpse into the remarkable life of the first African-American priest in the United States.
To receive the Zoom link to the presentation, register online at https://hbgdiocese.formstack.com/forms/across_the_father_tolton_movie.
Foley, who received a History degree from Christendom College and completed a thesis project on the Civil War for his Masters in Film, told The Catholic Witness that he’s always been interested in history, the Civil War and slavery.
“Long before that, I had a deep hatred for racism. My mom was a nurse from Pennsylvania who had told me about a trip to a medical convention in the south when she was young. They had to leave a restaurant because one of the doctors in their party was black. This made a deep impression on me because my best friend in grade school was a minority,” he said. “But what truly inspired me were the heroes who fought that injustice.”
“All of those factors – combined most importantly with the uniquely Catholic nature of Father Tolton’s story – made me immediately gravitate to him as soon as I heard about him,” Foley said.
A week after first reading about Tolton, Foley learned that Bishop Perry was coming to his city to give a talk about the African-American priest.
Foley met Bishop Perry after the event, and the bishop has been a valuable source to the writer and director as the film developed.
“At the same time I was writing my screenplay, he was collecting all of the historic documentation that the Vatican needed to advance Tolton’s sainthood cause,” Foley noted.
“Across” is the first step in a full theatrical feature film. The development has been hampered by the pandemic. Still, the short film promises an unforgettable glimpse into the remarkable life of young Tolton.
Tolton’s story, and the Diocese’s July 31 screening – rescheduled from an initially-planned event in May – can’t be more timely.
“Since he died so young and since he is largely unknown, I have always felt that his mission is unfinished,” Foley said. “But Catholic saints do their most important work after their deaths. I believe that his intercession and his example are meant to be widely shared now. He stood firmly and bravely against the horrible injustice of racism, but he always did it without hatred.”
Foley said Tolton has much in common with Dr. Martin Luther King. Quoting the two, Foley pointed to King’s remarks: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Turning to a quote from Tolton, Foley shared: “The Church deplores a double slavery – that of the mind and that of the body. It was the church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors.”
“Venerable Augustine’s patience, humility, strength and perseverance were so obvious in every fiber of the historic record. I was very moved that he could carry his heavy cross of discrimination and hatred and still be a beacon of joy to all that he met,” Foley said. “As a slave, he could walk among the wounded souls who shared that past. As an educated priest of God, he could teach them – and more importantly show them – how to achieve sanctity despite their suffering.”
“I set out to make a film about a fighter, and realized that a saint fights in a very different way than the average person. Even when he had to be tough and firm with his oppressors, he always approached them with charity too,” he said. “There was never any malice in the man, because his primary concern was bringing souls – even those of his enemies – to God.”
To register for the July 31 screening and discussion, visit 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