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Actor Jim Coleman Brings Father Tolton To Life At Xavier

Actor Jim Coleman Brings Father Tolton To Life At Xavier
Actor Jim Coleman Brings Father Tolton To Life At Xavier

The one-man performance about the life of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African-American to be ordained a Catholic priest for the United States, came to Xavier High School Thursday afternoon.

The play was put on by St. Luke Productions and the role of Father Tolton was performed by Jim Coleman, an actor in TV and film for close to 30 years. A friend had to convince Coleman to audition for the role. Coleman initially did not have interest, figuring he had done theater and did not want to go back there. But he tried out ... and didn't get the part. Two months later he got the call asking him to play the role.

"I told them I would do it for six months, and that was a year and a half ago," Coleman said.

He estimates he has done about 150 shows.

"Playing the role of Father Tolton, and I can't even say playing anymore because it is such a part of me," Coleman said. "Before every performance I pray to Father Tolton to speak through me, to paint the picture, to tell his story, to let them know exactly what he went through so they feel this as much as I feel it. This truly has been an inspirational movement for me and I couldn't think of doing anything better."

Father Tolton was born into slavery in Brush Creek, Mo., in 1854. His father was presumed dead in the Civil War and his mother took her three children and crossed the Mississippi River in a rowboat to escape slavery. They settled in Quincy, Ill., but found racial prejudice. He grew in the Catholic faith and wanted to become a priest, but could not go to any U.S. seminary, so he studied in Rome.

He was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31, figuring he would serve in Africa as a missionary. Instead he ended up back in Quincy, Ill., eventually serving as pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church and School. It is said he had quite the following there, among both blacks and whites. But racial tension in Quincy was still an issue and he ended up in Chicago, building St. Monica Church. Father Tolton died at the age of 43. There is a movement to make him a Saint.

After the play was over, Coleman told the Xavier students to let nothing stop them in the pursuit of their vocation. Father Tolton, of course, seemingly could have given up at any time. He never did.

Xavier High School is a private, Catholic all-boys high school school in Middletown, CT., and a Xaverian Brothers Sponsored School.