BALTIMORE — Jim Coleman was completely uninterested in portraying Father Augustus Tolton in a national touring theater production.
While he found the story of America’s first recognized black Catholic priest inspiring, the veteran actor of more than two decades was more interested in television and film roles.
“Acting was something I did at the very beginning of my career,” recalls Coleman, best known for playing Roger Parker on Nickelodeon’s hit show “Me and My Brother.”
At the insistence of a friend, Coleman auditioned for the role with St. Luke Productions. However, he was “very relieved” when he didn’t get the part.
“A few months later, I was offered the role,” said Coleman, a former US Army doctor who lives in Orlando, Florida. “I prayed about it with my wife and decided to give it a chance.”
Nearly four years later and after nearly 300 performances of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” Coleman said his life had been transformed.
People approached him after the performances with tears in their eyes, overwhelmed by Father Tolton’s faith and courage. Seminarians told him that the production encouraged them to pursue their own path to the priesthood.
And former seminarians turned priests arranged for the production to be performed in their parishes.
“It changed my heart in ways I couldn’t even imagine,” Coleman told The Josephite Harvest, magazine of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, or the Josephites.
“At each performance, I pray to Father Tolton and ask that he speak through me so that I become a vessel for his story,” the actor added.
Tolton was born into slavery in 1854. His widowed mother, Martha Tolton, escaped from Missouri to Illinois, rowing to freedom with Augustus and his two other children across the Mississippi River in a leaky boat as Confederate soldiers were shooting at him.
Augustus, a young man of faith, felt called to the priesthood, but could not find a seminary in the United States that would accept a black man.
“All he wanted to do was serve God,” Coleman said. “To be denied that was just heartbreaking.”
Tolton prepared for the priesthood in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886.
He was the first black American ordained to the priesthood. (Father Josephite Charles Uncles would become the first black American ordained on American soil when he was ordained at the National Shrine Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore in 1891.)
Although he expected to serve as a missionary in Africa, Tolton was sent back to the United States after his ordination. He was declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2019 and his cause for sainthood is under consideration at the Vatican.
Coleman believes much of Tolton’s courage comes from his mother.
“His mother prayed for him,” he said. “When he wanted to give up, she told him he couldn’t give up. She told him that Jesus had fallen carrying his cross and that he wasn’t carrying half the burden.
Acting isn’t Coleman’s only responsibility with Tolton’s production. He also drives the truck carrying the stage set – building the stage set and breaking it down, loading it into the truck and driving to the next location. The only other person with him is a stage manager.
“It gives me energy to do the show,” he said. “I love that.”
Coleman, the son of a Baptist pastor, said Tolton’s story is not just for Catholics. It carries a universal message.
“It’s amazing how once you go through this story, you realize it’s about how we are all one,” he said. “We are all one in Christ. There’s only one race, and that’s the human race.
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Editor’s Note: For more information on the touring production of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” visit the St. Luke Productions website, https://bit.ly/3nH5scA.
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Matysek is a contributor to The Josephite Harvest, the magazine of the Josephites. He is the editor of the Catholic Review, media of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.