To characterize Father Augustus Tolton’s life as remarkable is an understatement. 

He was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1854 and as a youth heard a call to priesthood. After every seminary in the United States rejected him, Tolton did not give up and finally was ordained in Rome. He died at 43 after collapsing from heat exhaustion in Chicago. His sainthood cause is now being explored. 

“Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” a play starring Andrae Goodnight and directed by Leonardo Defilippis of Saint Luke Productions, opens at St. Anthony Church in Southeast Portland Thursday, Oct. 5. Performances also will be held Friday, Oct, 6, at St. Joseph Church in Salem and Saturday, Oct. 7, in Aquinas Hall at Holy Rosary Parish in Northeast Portland.

The play explores courage, forgiveness and reconciliation. Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, postulator for Father Tolton’s canonization cause, says the drama could “inspire a new era of peace, hope and forgiveness in America.” 

When Tolton was a boy, his mother risked everything to reach freedom in Illinois with her three small children. After settling in Quincy, the family continued to experience hardships and prejudice. In spite of this, young Augustus persevered in his education and vocation. 

After his ordination, Father Tolton saw the church as the antidote to the discrimination and rejection he experienced. “It was the priests of the church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors,” he said.   

Goodnight, who has worked in youth ministry as well as acting, became Catholic with his wife, Cheryl. 

“The story of the first black priest in America touches me in a very personal way,” he explains. “It is a journey inward, and his sanctity beckons me to prayer and my own personal pursuit of holiness. I am seeking not only to play this role, but to become the role I play. I pray this drama will push forward the conversation about what it means to be a truly welcoming Catholic community.”