By Eddie O’Neill
When actor Andrae Goodnight steps onto the stage at the Pepsi Arena at Quincy University in in Quincy, Illinois, on Nov. 12, he will be portraying a 19th-century friend he has come to know and admire — Father Augustus Tolton.
Mr. Goodnight is an actor with Saint Luke Productions, a Catholic-theater ministry dedicated to evangelizing and renewing the culture through professional live and media productions.
The group is based in Battle Ground, Washington. Their production of “Tolton: from Slave to Priest” (www.stluke productions.com/dramas/tolton) made its official debut Nov. 5 at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
For more than three months, the 38-year-old actor has immersed himself in the life and times of Fr. Tolton, the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in the United States.
Fr. Tolton ministered in Quincy and then in Chicago from his priestly ordination in 1886 until his death in 1897.
His cause for sainthood was opened in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2010.
Fr. Tolton was born into slavery in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese. In 1854, he was baptized in the old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, a small community 20 miles north of Hannibal.
The current church, completed in 1862, stands at the site of his baptism.
After his father escaped to join the Union Army, his mother fled to Illinois with their children.
There, Fr. Tolton discovered his priestly calling and overcame tremendous obstacles to answer it.
Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, opened in 2011, bears his name.
Earlier this month, Mr. Goodnight took some time to speak with The Catholic Missourian about this theatrical production from his home in Southern California.
What is the message of the show?
The Tolton message is quite simply that perseverance and faith can offer a reward that is not necessarily found in this life but in the next.
He died in 1897, but here we are in 2017, and we are still talking about him. It is a testament that we can’t just fit our lives in neat little brackets of life and death.
Rather, when we are in Christ, our life can go on beyond the grave.
What is Fr. Tolton’s legacy?
If we measure success with things that you build or leave behind, Fr. Tolton is a failure. In fact I’ve been asked, “Why is this guy important? Why are you doing this play?”
But if you look at his life and the odds he overcame, it is quite a story. There was no seminary in the United States that would take him. As a priest, he was kicked out of Quincy and couldn’t complete the construction of a church for the African American Catholic community in Chicago.
In Tolton, you don’t see success but you do see faith and perseverance in spades, and that trumps any material work that he tried to accomplish.
As I dived into his life and times looking for something brilliant that he said and or did, there wasn’t anything. He was very ordinary.
Father Tolton was born into slavery and his mother and siblings escaped to freedom in Quincy. What did you learn about the black Catholic experience after the Civil War?
Catholicism wasn’t common among blacks. However, if it was practiced, it depended on where you lived as to how Catholicism played itself out.
If you were in the South and a slave, your experience would depend on the temperament of your owner. Some owners allowed circuit priests to visit and offer some rudimentary education and catechism. Others wouldn’t.
In the North, you had some black, ethnic-Catholic communities, but these were fragile congregations at best. They would have to worship in basements or wherever a benevolent soul let them pray, and often they wouldn’t know if they would have Mass from one week to the next.
You are a Catholic convert, correct? Talk about your journey to the Church.
I came into the Church in 2010. I like to say I prayed myself into the Catholic Church.
At the time, I was a (Protestant) minister at a church in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area and serving on the city council. I was overwhelmed. It was a real dark time for me.
One day I ducked into a Catholic Church, one of only four in Chattanooga, and ended up meeting a nun there who was praying the Liturgy of the Hours.
I was fascinated with the prayer. I have a Master of Divinity (degree), and the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours were straight out of the Bible.
I came back the next day and the day after that. Before I knew it, I was in the RCIA and welcome into the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2010.
My wife was so touched by the Easter Vigil that she and our kids soon entered the Church as well.
Our culture still struggles with issues of race and discrimination these days. Can Fr. Tolton be a “go-to saint” to help bring peace and an end to discrimination?
It’s been said that racism is America’s original sin. Our Constitution stated that African Americans were three-fifths of a person. This is in our founding document, and that continues to haunt us.
While Fr. Tolton was not an abolitionist, he served all. White or black, it did not matter.
In fact, it was his ministry to whites in Quincy that got him kicked out of town.
So yes, we need brave souls like Tolton to fight discrimination. Racism will not go away overnight. The Church is universal, and we all have a role to play to end it.