Through the mind of a historian and the heart of a mom, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s heroic virtues were given a full hearing before the children at a camp bearing his name.
Professional storyteller Mett Morris, formerly of Quincy, Illinois, reprised her popular role as Martha Jane Tolton, mother of the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
She broke into hymns and spirituals while sharing Martha Jane’s story of growing up enslaved, being separated from her parents, falling in love with and marrying a man from a neighboring farm in northeastern Missouri, and risking her life to gain freedom for her children.
She passionately proclaimed how prayer, perseverance and help from many friends allowed her second-oldest son to answer his fervent call to Priesthood.
“He wanted to preach and praise God and help people,” Martha Jane told the children through Mrs. Morris.
She strode back and forth before the fireplace in the main hall of the Camp Jo-Ota Camping and Retreat Center in Clarence, casting glances at heaven and off into the distance.
The children’s eyes followed as her character spoke of having children, raising them in the Catholic faith, and deciding to escape with them to Illinois to avoid the risk of having the family broken up.
She recounted with wonder how young “Gus” devoured his religious studies, became a catechist, realized that God wanted him to be a priest, and pursued that calling all the way to the Pontifical Urban College in Rome, as no U.S. seminary would accept him because he was Black.
He was ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City in 1886 and offered his First Solemn Mass the following day in St. John Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s cathedral.
Mrs. Morris expressed Mrs. Tolton’s delight of having her son sent back to Quincy as a missionary priest, offering Mass every Sunday and attracting congregants from near and far to the city’s church for Black Catholics.
The joy did not last. Jealousy and rivalries eventually made it nearly impossible for Fr. Tolton to continue ministering in Quincy.
“So finally, they sent him to Chicago, to be pastor at St. Monica’s Church,” said the character of Martha Jane.
She spoke of all the poor members of the parish, which had been founded to serve Chicago’s Black Catholics.
“They had no money,” she noted. “So, Fr. Tolton spent so much time going out to do speeches and programs to bring money to help the church.
“Sometimes, he got so tired, he had to have a seat to preach his sermon,” she recalled.
She spoke of helping him as a sacristan at church, housekeeper at his rectory and fellow pilgrim through life’s travails.
“We prayed all the time,” she said. “We prayed together.”
She spoke candidly of the day he died of heatstroke on a Chicago street on a blistering summer day.
“My son was dead at 43,” she said through tears. “That was a terribly sad moment. But you know, I still trusted God!”
Recalling his Funeral Masses in Chicago and Quincy, she set free a soaring rendition of his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name!”
“Today, I’m still sacristan at St. Monica Church,” Martha Jane proclaimed through Mrs. Morris. “I did everything I could to help him, and I’m gonna still be here at St. Monica’s until I’m gone.”
She closed with the stirring spiritual, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Mrs. Morris and Camp Tolton Director Amanda Durbin hugged and exchanged tears at the end of the presentation.
Mrs. Durbin pointed out the image of Fr. Tolton on the banner behind Mrs. Morris.
“Just seeing that young man’s face, so happy to honor his mother, just as Jesus honors his mother and wants us to honor her, too,” she stated.
Mrs. Morris then visited with children and adults and answered questions about Fr. Tolton.
She spoke of having portrayed Martha Jane last year in Chicago at a reunion of the descendants of Fr. Tolton’s siblings.
She also performed in a children’s play about Fr. Tolton, written by his great-great-niece, Sabra Penn.
While living in Quincy, Mrs. Morris portrayed Martha Jane at several events in the Jefferson City diocese, including a 2012 celebration in the Shrine of St. Patrick in St. Patrick for Catholic clergy, and a 2016 gathering of the Father Tolton Legacy Society in Columbia.
“I keep trying to make it better,” she said.
Martha Jane, Monica and Mary
Children and young people from a handful of northern Missouri parishes took part in this year’s Camp Tolton, held throughout the last week of July at the Camp Jo-Ota campground.
The experience, doled out in age-appropriate doses for children in pre-kindergarten through high school, melded 135 Catholic children’s faith with many of the outdoor activities they love.
“It’s been amazing,” said Mrs. Durbin. “We’ve spent the week focusing on heroically virtuous members of our Church family, who we believe are in heaven and who we believe we’re called to follow because we’re all called to sainthood.”
Priests took turns offering Mass and taking questions from the campers.
Pre-kindergartners and kindergartners spent a day at the camp; first- and second-graders spent two days and one night; and third- and fourth-graders, fifth- and sixth-graders, and seventh- through 12th-graders each stayed three days and two nights.
The camp started seven years ago, when members of the St. Mary Parish youth group in Shelbina were looking for something distinctly Catholic to do over the summer.
After organizers contacted the youth ministers at neighboring parishes, the inaugural Catholic Church Camp at Camp Jo-Ota came into being, with more than 100 participants.
The camp has grown steadily since then, with activities designed for each age group based on their level of formation.
The highlight of each year’s camp is the Eucharistic procession into the woods.
Last year, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, co-postulator of Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, came to Clarence and spoke to the campers.
In like fashion, this year’s speakers, including seminarians of this diocese, emphasized how everyone there is called to sainthood.
“I love that we have the example of Fr. Tolton so close to home,” said Mrs. Durbin. “And I’m convinced that Fr. Tolton wanted us to spend time learning more about his mother, and giving her a spotlight. And we did.”
They also held up St. Monica, who prayed for years for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine; and the Blessed Mother, as examples of “the beauty of the role of mothers in these men’s lives.”
“Without these heroic mothers, we wouldn’t have St. Augustine, we wouldn’t have Fr. Augustus,” said Mrs. Durbin. “We wouldn’t have Mary’s ‘fiat’ that welcomed the Savior of the world.”
“Power from above”
The campers were preparing to have a swimming party at 2:30 p.m. on their last day, but harsh weather crept up and they decided to have fellowship in the main hall.
They played cards, wove bracelets out of embroidery floss, played cornhole, listened and danced to music and watched the storm blow through.
Later, they gathered in the chapel with the Totus Tuus missionaries and the teen and young adult counselors from this summer’s Catholic camps in the diocese.
Father Paul Clark, diocesan vocation director, presided at Mass.
Father Joseph Luzindana, diocesan moderator for youth and young adult ministry, preached the homily.
“God is choosing us to be the champions of today, to go out in his name and bring many souls to him,” Fr. Luzindana proclaimed.
“Nothing is going to stop us!” he said. “We want you to go and shout! We want you to light up your schools, your families. Make the Sign of the Cross and let everybody know: We are saluting God!”
Fr. Luzindana told them to keep their eyes fixed on God.
“The world is so crazy today, and our eyes are too often fixed on other things,” he said.
He urged the campers not to go home without kneeling down and asking God to show them the way and give them the strength to live their faith confidently out in the world.
“Ask today for the power from above!” he advised. “Pray that God gives you the grace, so that you can be his witnesses to this world.
“God is calling you!” he assured them. “God is going to use you mightily!”
Portraying Martha Jane Tolton is a great fit for Mrs. Morris, who grew up loving God and loving music.
“And those spirituals are my roots,” she noted. “It comes pretty easily to me.”
Her grandmother sang in a Gospel choir in church.
“When I was a little girl, she would set me on her knee and we would sing together,” Mrs. Morris recalled.
She moved to Quincy with her husband in 1999 and shortly thereafter began working on her historical interpretation of Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved woman in the 1800s who became an ardent opponent of slavery and advocate for women’s rights.
Impressed with Mrs. Morris’s portrayal, several friends encouraged her also to begin sharing the story of Martha Jane Tolton.
“What I try to get across is that she loved God and had a loving heart and was obedient him, and that she trusted him to guide her,” said Mrs. Morris.
“That’s where she got her tremendous strength,” she added.