Fr. Tolton filmmaker is in awe of the story he’s working to tell


Chris Foley’s short film, “Across: The Father Tolton Movie,” is a testament to his Catholic faith, his love for a friend and his determination to tell the story of an escaped slave who would become a priest and may one day soon named a saint.

Mr. Foley, a Nashville, Tennessee native, decided to tell the story of Father Augustus Tolton, the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in the United States, after reading a short article about him.

“Fr. Tolton was an interesting character,” Foley stated in a recent phone interview. “He suffered so much.”

He was born in 1854, a son of slaves who labored on a farm in rural Monroe County, Missouri.

When he was 10 years old, his family — he and his mother, brother and infant sister — made their run to freedom across the Mississippi River from Missouri to Illinois.

Fr. Tolton’s father went to fight for the Union Army, dying in the process.

A compelling story

A Civil War buff and strong Catholic, Mr. Foley said the story of the runaway slave who would become a priest caught his attention.

“I was really drawn into it,” he said. “It’s something uplifting.”

He said that when Fr. Tolton was finally accepted into formation for the Priesthood, something he had expressed interest in from a young age, his dream was to be sent to Africa to serve as a missionary.

He studied at the Urban College in Rome because no U.S. seminary would accept him on account of his race.

Fr. Tolton was shocked to find out shortly before his priestly ordination in 1889 that he was being missioned back to Quincy, where he had grown up.

He served there for three years before being reassigned to a congregation of mostly poor African Americans in Chicago.

There, he founded St. Monica parish for black Catholics, ministering with great acclaim until his death of heat stroke in 1897.

He was 43 years old.

Crosses to carry

Mr. Foley enlisted the help of a friend, Matt Cameron, to work with him on the film.

Mr. Cameron later developed cancer but chose to continue working on the project.

“He’s not one to sit around,” Mr. Foley noted at the time.

Mr. Cameron died during postproduction work. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Mr. Foley said Fr. Tolton “carried his cross” time after time, from his family’s escape from slavery forward.

“Here’s this heroic priest,” Mr. Foley stated. “His whole life is an example of that (heroism). That’s why I believe he will be a declared saint in the not-to-distant future.”

Pope Francis, upon the recommendation of advisors who reviewed the extensive biographical information the Chicago archdiocese sent to the Vatican, recently bestowed on Fr. Tolton the title “venerable,” an important step toward being declared a saint.

Simple reminders

It’s been two years since Mr. Foley visited old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek in rural Monroe County — the place of Fr. Tolton’s baptism — to shoot scenes for the movie.

He also filmed in parts of Hannibal.

He credited Father Roy Bauer, now deceased, a longtime pastor of St. Peter parish in Quincy, with providing much of the local color and insight into Fr. Tolton’s story.

Actress Nina Hibbler Webster of Nashville, Tennessee, played Martha Jane Tolton, Fr. Tolton’s mother.

She said that before taking the part, she had never heard the story of the nation’s first American-born black priest.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said of the struggles he endured. “I have children of my own. I feel like I could feel what she would feel ... wanting to protect my children.”

She said filming at Brush Creek was “surreal.”

As an African American woman, she had heard stories of slavery passed down through her own family.

Walking around St. Peter Cemetery and looking at tombstones, she noticed the simple memorials that were added over the years to the graves of the slaves.

“They’re very humble and they are facing the tombstones that are so grand,” she said.

Ms. Webster said when humans claim ownership of other people, when they succeed in making a person “a thing on paper,” something inconceivable like slavery becomes a lot easier to conceive.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Hoping for great things

Mr. Foley is working hard to raise enough money to complete the feature-length film about Fr. Tolton’s journey to the Priesthood, and his life and work in the mission field of his own country.

“The short film stands on its own,” Mr. Foley explained. “But it always was the goal to make a feature film.”

This is sort of a launch pad for that, he said.

“Across” has had screenings at a number of churches throughout the region and has been entered into various film festivals. The next screening is Sept. 23 in Plainfield, Illinois.

“We hope the film will do great things,” Mr. Foley said, “as Fr. Tolton’s life was a great thing.”

A crowd-investing effort closed earlier this month after hitting its maximum of $107,000.

Mr. Foley said the next step is to draw a name-actor in order to obtain the remaining $5 to 10 million needed from traditional equity film investors. He plans to resume filming next summer.

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