Andrae Goodnight, the actor who portrays Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest, speaks to students at De La Salle High School in North Portland about what the role has meant to him.
Andrae Goodnight, the actor who portrays Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest, speaks to students at De La Salle High School in North Portland about what the role has meant to him.

The crowd, more than 250 strong, in Holy Rosary Parish’s Aquinas Hall, hushed as the lights dimmed Saturday night for the third-ever production of “Tolton: From slave to priest.”

When the drama ended, the audience immediately rose to give a standing ovation for the performance, the actor, Andrae Goodnight, who portrayed the nineteenth-century priest, and then for Leonardo Defilippis, president and founder of St. Luke Productions, who conceived and produced the drama.

After its opening five-night run at various parishes in Oregon, the play goes to Chicago, St. Louis and beyond.

“We’re doing this for the canonization cause,” Defilippis told the crowd before the play began. “Father Tolton’s message of love and unity needs to be heard as one of the most important voices in the United States.”

After the show, Defilippis said, “I can’t wait to see what the Holy Spirit does with this.”

The production is a successful hybrid of theater and film, a one-man show with a cast of supporting actors on the screen, a unique format.

Goodnight plays Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1854, seven years before the Civil War began. His father escaped bondage to fight with the Union Army, leaving his wife, Martha Tolton, and three young children. They too escaped. She passed along her Catholic faith to her children in Quincy, Illinois, where they settled.

There, an Irish missionary priest, Father Peter McGirr, saw the young man’s promise. Father McGirr became his mentor and advocate. When no U.S. seminary would accept Tolton, Father McGirr successfully pleaded his case to Rome. Tolton traveled there for his priestly training, thinking he would be assigned to missionary work in Africa. He was ordained in 1886, the first recognized African-American priest.

Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, prefect of the Propagation of the Faith, instead sent Father Tolton home to preach and minister to the African-American population in Illinois. Father Tolton served in Quincy and Chicago.

The 90-minute production covers Father Tolton’s life from his boyhood to his death.

“This spoke to my heart, and Andrae Goodnight did a wonderful job,” said Evelyn Couser, chairwoman of the African-American Catholic Community of Oregon and a parishioner at The Madeleine, after the performance.

“It comes at a critical time,” added her husband, Ron Couser. “We are a divided nation and Father Tolton’s message is one of unity in Christ.”

Keinya Kohlbecker, another Madeleine parishioner, says she has urged a friend at the University of Dayton in Ohio, a Catholic school, to sponsor the production there. “It’s so timely and revealing,” she said. “We don’t know about the interwoven fabric of the church, about all the different peoples who contributed to it. We need to shine a light on that. I want my son to know there are people of color who are part of the church’s history.”

As powerful as Father Tolton’s story is, the production’s drive and impact depends upon Goodnight. Defilippis postponed beginning work on “Tolton” for years — until he found the perfect actor to play the role.

Goodnight is a Catholic convert and father of six children aged 3 to 13. He embodies Father Tolton, from youth to manhood, bringing in turn joy and sorrow to the stage. His constant is his faith, regularly refreshed through his own prayers and those of his mother, played and sung — through Gospel hymns — by Atlanta actress Elissa Sanders.

Other strong performances include the Archdiocese of Portland’s own Father Chuck Wood (playing an anti-Catholic Protestant preacher); Portland actor Bobby Bermea (playing Father Tolton’s lifelong friend and supporter) and Defilippis (as Cardinal Simeoni).

Father Wood attended the performance at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Portland two nights earlier. An earlier audience also saw the play at St. Joseph in Salem. It is scheduled for St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver, Washington, at 7 p.m. tonight (Sunday, Oct. 8) and at St. Luke Parish, Woodburn, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m.

Mid-October the crew goes to Illinois, where they’ll perform in Batavia, Joliet, Mundelein, Chicago, Effingham and Granite City.

That tour includes a performance at the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.

Defilippis, who produced “Thérèse,” about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and live dramas and film productions about St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. John Vianney and St. John of the Cross, said he began praying about writing a drama about Tolton several years ago. The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago encouraged him and put him in touch with Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, who is leading the canonization effort for Father Tolton.

The producer and actor believes “Tolton” could not be more timely. “There are so many misunderstandings between the races in the United States today,” he said after the Holy Rosary performance. “Father Tolton is the Catholic Martin Luther King. He gave his all to his faith. This show brings us together.”

Goodnight admitted that it’s exhausting to play Father Tolton, in all his passion. But he said there has also been grace. The production, he says, gives a glimpse of the challenges Father Tolton had to overcome in order to become ordained — and then to serve. “Ultimately, even though we never escape our human weaknesses, we see the grace of God,” Goodnight says.

The script and playing Father Tolton have challenged Goodnight to reconsider what success means.

“We could ask why we’re celebrating this man,” he said as volunteers broke down the stage set. “Father Tolton never founded a seminary, never wrote a book. So if you define success in materialistic terms, he was a failure. But if it’s defined by our faithfulness, then he was a great model of success. He was where God wanted him to be.”

For more information about upcoming performances go to  stlukeproductions.com/dramas/tolton