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UD to Host Play About First Black American Priest

The University of Dayton will host a live, one-man theater production on the life of Augustus Tolton in celebration of Black Catholic History Month at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, in Kennedy Union ballroom.

Tolton: From Slave to Priest features actor Jim Coleman as Father Augustus Tolton, the first known African-American Catholic priest in the United States. The Dayton production is part of a national tour for the play, which opened in October 2017, and will be staged at the University as part of a collaboration with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

“This is an excellent opportunity for people to learn about a truly consequential Catholic of the late 19th century,” said Cecilia Moore, associate professor of religious studies. “As the first known black man to be ordained a Catholic priest in the United States, Father Tolton was a spiritual trailblazer. He refused to let racism and racists keep him from being who he felt God called him to be.”

The play will follow the University’s annual Father Joseph Davis, S.M., Black Catholic History Month Lecture, at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, in Sears Recital Hall. Moore will deliver the lecture, "'When the Saints Go Marching In: The Work of Making Black Saints,” on men and women of African descent in the United States whose causes for canonization have been introduced.

In addition to Tolton, those persons include Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblates Sisters of Providence; Pierre Toussaint, a layman, a former slave and 19th-century Catholic philanthropist; Mother Henriette Delille, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family; and Julia Greeley, a lay woman, a former slave and practitioner of works of mercy in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Colorado.

“The University's hosting of this event is part of our commitment to serve our local church in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati,” said Father James Fitz, S.M., vice president for mission and rector.

Born as a slave in Missouri in 1854, Tolton escaped to freedom in 1862 in Quincy, Illinois, with his mother and siblings. His father ran away earlier, but died fighting as a soldier for the Union army in the Civil War.

In Quincy, Tolton received an education in Catholic schools and was supported by many members of the Catholic leadership in the area in his quest to be a priest. He was ordained in Rome in 1886, and later led parishes in Quincy and Chicago. Before his death in 1897, he led St. Monica's Colored Roman Catholic Church in Chicago.

In 2010, Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago announced his intention to pursue the cause of sainthood for Tolton. The Vatican granted the "Servant of God" designation in 2012 and accepted registration of Tolton’s cause. In March 2018, historical consultants to the Vatican Congregation for Causes of Saints voted to move the cause forward on its path to the pope.

“It is my hope that the play will make Father Tolton and his amazing story more well known among Catholics in the United States and in African-American religious history, too,” said Moore, a member of the historical commission on behalf of Tolton’s cause for sainthood. “The play is just one of the efforts that are meant to help promote the cause of sainthood for Father Tolton."

The play and lecture are free and open to the public; no tickets are necessary. Contact University of Dayton Campus Ministry at 937-229-3339 for more information.

To learn more about the play, visit For more on the life of Tolton and the cause for sainthood, visit


News and Communications Staff