EWTN Spotlight: The Story of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton Comes to TV

Catch a new episode of ‘They Might Be Saints.’

EWTN’s ‘They Might Be Saints’ series highlights the holy life of Father Augustus Tolton.
EWTN’s ‘They Might Be Saints’ series highlights the holy life of Father Augustus Tolton. (photo: Courtesy photos / EWTN)

“He was ordained to save souls and to bring souls into deeper intimacy with Jesus Christ. That was the first and main priority of Augustus Tolton, being a sacramental witness to the people that were marginalized and broken in the culture, especially a lot of the people of color.”

So states Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, author of Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest, to viewers of a new EWTN episode.

“Father Tolton’s message would be that we’re all the same; we all come from the same God,” adds Valerie Jennings of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“He saw the challenge, and he just did the work before him because he knew that God was not going to challenge him to do something that he could not do,” intones Tolton ambassador Angela Hicks.

Thus begins the insightful, inspiring look into the life and challenges of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American priest in the United States, airing as part of the EWTN series They Might Be Saints, beginning Oct. 21. This short film arrives to mark the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Father Tolton’s death this past summer.

The series host, Michael O’Neill, also the writer and an executive producer of the show, highlights all the essentials about Father Tolton’s life in a way that brings this groundbreaking priest to life in several ways.

A primary one is the way Father Tolton’s story is interwoven with commentary from various on-screen narrators. Dramatic, non-verbal scenes of various steps in the saintly priest’s life take on new meaning as these narrators share their thoughts on how this priest’s far-reaching influence and saintly life should continue moving and inspiring the faithful today.

In one brief scene, for example, his mother flees to freedom with her two children to safety in Quincy, Illinois. The family is Catholic, and Augustus begins serving Mass daily when he is 14. Father Peter McGirr, the pastor, saw the possibility of his becoming a priest, so impressed was he by the young Augustus’ love of the Eucharist and service at the altar. Taught by his pastor yet rejected from every American seminary, Tolton takes Father McGirr’s advice to go to Rome to study. Once ordained, he is sent back to serve in his Diocese of Alton (absorbed in the Springfield Diocese in the early 20th century). There, he became a catalyst for change, bringing together all to worship together.

Although there is no dialogue in these dramatic recreations, the actor Philip Simkins quite convincingly conveys the warmth, the perseverance, the faith and the brotherly love Father Tolton had for all people. As narrators tell viewers, when Father Tolton first arrived and began his priestly ministry in Quincy, people came to see him out of curiosity. Then “they heard him talk, and they felt the love, and it changed everything. His preaching style was definitely about unity together,” explains Joyce Duriga, author of Augustus Tolton: The Church Is the True Liberator.

The whole community worshipped together and were inspired by the way his love for God lifted their spirits and the way he was able to move hearts preaching on the Scriptures.

When he transferred to Chicago, he started to build a new church for the Black community. He even wrote saint-to-be Mother Katharine Drexel asking for funds to continue the project. When the church opened, it quickly grew from 30 souls in the pews to 600 parishioners.

One of the narrators, Father Andrew Smith, pastor of Holy Angels Church in Chicago, comments on this achievement in the episode: “We say in the community, when you have faith, you can step out on nothin’ and land on somethin’. That was Father Tolton.”

This saint-in-the-making was a source of hope then as he is now. Again, narrators help solidify that fact. For instance, Deacon Burke-Sivers shares, “It would be awesome for a slave to become a canonized saint. I think that would be a tremendous blessing for everyone in our country.”

Snippets of personal stories tell viewers the same. Father Smith explains that as an African American priest himself, knowing Father Tolton’s story kept him going on his road to the priesthood and during any rough times to follow. He says, “That perseverance, that strength, gives me inspiration … I can go on.”

If Father Tolton becomes a saint, it would give African Americans in Chicago “a reason to pause and look at the Church again as a place where they are acknowledged and valuable and viewed as having a positive impact on the Church,” explains Deacon James Norman.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, the vice postulator for the cause of Father Tolton, who was named “Venerable” in 2019, reminds viewers of the chief virtues of this holy priest and how he himself is inspired by his priestly example.

“I believe Father Tolton is a saint,” Bishop Perry says, adding lightheartedly, “for what we put him through!” After seeing the story of Father Tolton on this latest episode of They Might Be Saints, viewers will believe as Bishop Perry does.


They Might Be Saints: Father Augustus Tolton will be broadcast at 5pm Eastern on Friday, Oct. 21, and Friday, Oct. 28.