Reconciliation and healing. Improved race relations. Overcoming great obstacles and difficulties.
These and other themes that particularly resonate in these challenging times are what make the staging of an upcoming production at Christ Cathedral all the more timely.
“Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” the story of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American Catholic priest, will be performed Jan. 26-28, 2018 at the Freed Theater on the campus of Christ Cathedral.
The 90-minute drama is part of the Christ Cathedral Drama Series being produced by Saint Luke Productions, the longest-running Catholic-focused theater group in the U.S.
The series begins Oct. 13-15 with “Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.”
The timing of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” couldn’t be better, its writer and lead actor said.
“It delivers an incredible message of never giving up; a message of hope, perseverance, of running the race to the end, and of selflessness,” said Leonardo Defilippis, a Shakespearean actor and president and founder of St. Luke Productions.
Andrae Goodnight, a former resident of Rancho Santa Margarita, said he is “very excited” for the “wonderful opportunity” to portray Tolton, whose canonization process is under way and, if successful, would make him the first U.S.-born saint.
“The story of any saint is a story of overcoming obstacles to enter a state of grace, and Tolton lived in a particularly dark period,” Goodnight said.
Indeed, Tolton was born a slave in 1854 in Missouri and, while growing up in Quincy, Ill., he endured ridicule and humiliation in the city’s churches and schools, according to biographical information from several online sources.
He was denied acceptance by every Catholic seminary in the country when, at age 16, he was called to the priesthood.
Eventually, he was able to work enough odd jobs for a decade to be able to travel to Rome to attend a seminary there.
After being ordained in 1886, Tolton was assigned to St. Joseph Parish back in Quincy, but he faced resistance inside and outside the church. Later, he moved to Chicago to help develop and built St. Monica’s parish, where he worked tirelessly to minister to the poor, sick and hungry, and to raise money for the community.
Tolton died from complications of heatstroke in 1897.
He was 43.
In March 2010, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago launched a cause for canonization of Father Tolton. Now deemed a “servant of God,” Father Tolton’s canonization process continues.
Defilippis said he started writing the drama a couple of years ago. Previews will be held in Portland on Oct. 5, and a premiere will follow in Chicago at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
“Then we will perform it in all the historical places of his life before coming to Orange County in January,” Defilippis said.
Defilippis said Father Tolton is a symbol of the “triumph of the cross” in a world in which almost everything seems to be failing.
“Despite these threats, God will prevail; death does not stop Christ. He is the rock. And that is the message (of Tolton’s life),” Defilippis said. “There is nothing that can sink the boat of Christ. His life represented the sense of stability and confidence in Christ himself.”
Defilippis and Goodnight said the play also is important because most people don’t know the story of Father Tolton.
And his story centers on racial discrimination, which continues to be a fiery topic today, they said.
“Father Tolton is one of the most important people in the Catholic Church for African Americans, as well as the history of the priesthood in the U.S.,” Defilippis said.
Before he died in April 2015, Cardinal George made a financial donation to ensure that the production of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest” got off the ground, according to Defilippis.
“That gave me a boost of confidence” to write and produce the drama, he said.
“It really is an incredible story of raw faith and the everlasting message that nothing can stop God,” Defilippis added. “God used him as a vessel to create a movement of love and forgiveness and healing, as well as better race relations.”
Goodnight, who has been working as a professional actor for more than two years, said the production includes multimedia elements that cover both the dark and good elements of Father Tolton’s life.
“The play will have some wonderful surprises,” Goodnight said.
Goodnight said he auditioned for the role of Father Tolton after seeing an ad in Orange County Catholic while attending Mass at Christ Cathedral.
“His light shined in darkness,” Goodnight said. “He’s a wonderful example of how God’s light shined not only in his own life, but in the lives of many that followed.”