Director Christopher Foley’s longer feature film on Fr. Augustine Tolton is expected in 2021.
We had a chance to speak with Foley, who explained that this project has actually been in development for six years. Foley is a life-long history buff, and his admiration for his subject — the first African-American priest — was intensified after the filmmaker attended a talk by Bishop Joseph Perry, in which the prelate discussed the life of Father Tolton. Foley said:
“I went to the talk and immediately went to speak with him, right after, I said, ‘I want to make a movie about this.'” The director added, “My thesis, when I went to Christendom College, was about slavery and the Civil War. It’s just something that’s always been in my wheelhouse and then to combine the Catholic element with it … I just thought it was the story of an American Catholic hero and it needed to be told.”
Born in 1854, Augustus (baptized Augustine) Tolton spent his childhood in bondage as a slave. His family was able to escape to the North, where they were granted amnesty and eventually settled in Quincy, Illinois. It was there that an adolescent Tolton discerned a vocation to the priesthood, which was kindled and encouraged by his mentor, an Irish priest named Father Peter McGirr.
In a highly segregated era, Father Tolton’s priesthood was ahead of its time, as he would minister to members of all races. This drew the ire of many, including members of the clergy who often treated him badly. To these hardships, Foley tells us, Father Tolton would answer in the Christian fashion, by turning the other cheek:
“He believed that you must meet hatred with love. A lot of people hated him just for what he stood for, being the first African-American priest here, but he never struck back in anger. He suffered like Christ did and led by his example,” director Christopher Foley said.
Foley, who is a fan of epic films that also convey the human truths so effectively explored by directors such as John Ford, Frank Capra, Stephen Spielberg and Antoine Fuqua, went on to say that the short film Across will only cover Father Tolton’s childhood, but it is a precursor to a larger project that will delve into Fr. Tolton’s pastoral work, as well as his pre-civil-rights-era efforts to spread ideas of equality and unity. Foley hopes to start filming the longer work in the summer of 2020, utilizing as much of the original cast as he can, although he lamented the fact that the children from the short film will most likely be too old to reprise their roles.
The short film, Across, has already been taken to festivals and Catholic events, where Foley said it was “very well received.” When asked why he thought people have taken to Tolton’s story so readily, Foley said:
“People love origin stories and the people who do know about Father Tolton, know of his power as a priest. To see him as a child in slavery and during the civil war kinda gives you the sense of how he became the man that he was, how he suffered, and how his suffering led him to be a great priest.”
Foley said that the film will highlight the life of a good and holy priest, which he feels is something that needs to be done more frequently.
“The majority of Catholic priests are good and holy men and we need to see their example throughout history. Father Tolton is one of those. He’s probably going to become the first African-American saint and the reason he’s a saint is not because of his color, but because of his faith.
“He followed Christ’s example, suffering through abuse from different people, including some in the church. His example shines through to everybody throughout the ages.
“I think people need to see that today. They need all the many examples of good priests put into the spotlight.”
Across will air on EWTN on December 18 at 10:00 p.m. Look for the release of the longer film, which will hopefully be in theaters by 2021. Foley is confident that anyone who views the EWTN broadcast will become a Tolton fan.
“I think especially with going to this particular audience on the EWTN broadcast, I know that people will love it just because of the Catholic elements that are in it. Beyond that, we were fortunate to have a tremendous cast and crew.
“It’s just a very well made feature that draws people in emotionally and tells a story that rings through all history: a family that’s enslaved, looking for their freedom. It’s a timeless story in that sense.”
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