Across: The Father Tolton Movie takes audiences back to Ven. Tolton’s boyhood in Missouri in 1863. The 36-minute short film will air exclusively at 10 p.m. Eastern Dec. 18 on EWTN. Written and directed by Nashville, Tennessee, filmmaker Christopher Foley, the short film is the basis for a full feature-length movie that Foley plans to shoot next summer.
Foley — along with Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago where Ven. Tolton served — will be interviewed about Fr. Tolton on “EWTN Live” earlier at 8 p.m. Catholic Digest spoke with Foley about the making of Across.
Q: Tell us about Across.
A: Based on an incredible true story, the short film Across brings to life a pivotal moment in the boyhood of Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African American priest in the United States. It’s the dramatic tale of his attempt to escape slavery with his family during the chaos of the Civil War.
The short film takes the audience to an encounter with “Gus,” a 10-year-old Missouri field slave, who is devastated when his father flees the plantation to go fight for the Union in the Civil War. The short is a 36-minute long piece rife with the tension that Gus and his family experience at the hands of George, the brutal overseer, watching his every move.
Young Gus tries to convince his mother to take the rest of the family on the dangerous journey north, fighting for their lives against George, slave catchers, as well as the Confederate soldiers, who are eager to collect lucrative bounty. Beyond that is the mighty Mississippi River, a seemingly impossible obstacle between Gus and free land in Illinois.
Q: How did you come to learn about Fr. Tolton?
A: Before I obtained my master’s in film, I earned a history degree, and wrote my thesis about slavery and the Civil War. It is a topic that has screamed out to me my whole life. As a Catholic, I looked at American slavery as the original sin of our country. Only by eradicating it — and its effects — can we come to be a unified nation.
Fr. Gus came on my radar in a short internet article about six years ago, and his story immediately grabbed me as cinematic. That same week, I learned that Bishop Joseph Perry — the postulator for Ven. Tolton’s sainthood — was coming to town to give a presentation about him.
That evening, I was so moved that I approached the bishop and told him I was going to make a movie about this. Even though he had never met me, he agreed to stay in touch with me and share the research he was doing for the Vatican and the canonization. So, Bishop Perry was the key for me as I did my own research and completed the screenplay.
Q: What did you learn about Fr. Tolton when making this movie?
A: Although I loved the Catholic elements to the story, it was the human drama — the escape and the underdog tale — that grabbed me and pulled me in initially. But, as I worked on the project, it was the deep humility and holiness of Ven. Augustus Tolton that filled out the drama in a very real sense. I loved how he accepted suffering like Our Lord did, and how he returned love to those who hated him. It wasn’t until after I finished the first draft that I re-named the project “Across.”
One reason I picked the title was because he had to go across the Mississippi and the Atlantic as part of his journey. But, the deeper meaning is how Fr. Gus carried a cross his entire life. He carried it with dignity and paved the way for so many others. His life is such a vivid example of not just courage and perseverance, but of how to walk a path to holiness and to heaven.
Q: Why do you think Ven. Tolton’s story will resonate with an American audience?
A: Fr. Tolton is not just a priest, but he’s a man who sacrificed from his boyhood to his death at a young age in his 40s. Fr. Tolton overcame extraordinary adversity, dangers, and prejudice. This is a historical piece about a time in America where there was great division and it’s a reminder about how far we have come and, yet how far we have yet to go with racial reconciliation.
Even when Ven. Tolton wanted to take his priesthood to his mother country of Africa, he was obedient when assigned to return and live out his ministry in America, the very place where he was persecuted the most. In a sense, Ven. Tolton shows us how to pick up our cross and carry it. He did this out of love, and that love transformed others. Ultimately, Fr. Tolton shows us the way of love, which is Christ’s way.
When telling this story, I didn’t want to sugarcoat his persecution by other clergy. I think this is important because there will always be fallen men inside the Church; we know that only too well from recent headlines. But the majority of Catholic priests throughout the centuries have been much more like Fr. Tolton — good men who have made the salvation of souls their life’s work.
The majority of Catholic priests throughout the centuries have been much more like Fr. Tolton.
So, we need to hold up heroes like him to the public — to tell their tale and show the beauty of Christ’s Church shining forth despite the failings of some of her sons. Fr. Gus’ example is labeled ‘heroism’ by the world, but in the language of the church it is sanctity.
With the ongoing racial strife in America, and the unfortunate scandals in the Church, it is time to promote the story of a man whose example shows us how to deal with these exact issues. Speaking across 150 years of time, Fr. Gus prays us to meet hatred head-on with patience, strength, and love. This is a message for America and the world. I really think audiences are going to fall in love with Fr. Tolton and also come to encounter a spiritual friend, a companion for these times in which we live.
Q: What can you tell us about plans for the feature film?
A: This has been and will continue to be a labor of love. The response from the Catholic Church, Christian evangelical community, and mainstream audiences has been extremely edifying. Right now, we are focusing on raising money from private investors to finance the feature film project and discerning A-list talent to cast.
We have received a letter of interest from NBC Universal to distribute the feature, but the key to them is the attachment of the right actors. So, casting key roles is our priority right now. Our producing team wants this film to be a high-quality film that appeals to all sectors of society. Ven. Tolton’s story is timeless and his legacy will impact millions. We know that the short film has generated tremendous response thus far, which is a great litmus test for how the feature film will be received.
Ven. Tolton’s story is timeless and his legacy will impact millions.
We are on target to shoot this summer, but we need all the prayers we can get for everything to fall in place. It has been said that every independent film is a small miracle of itself. There’s no better man to shepherd in that miracle than Ven. Augustus Tolton. We ask all your readers to pray for us as we go forward and to and to follow us on Twitter @AcrossMovie and on Facebook @AcrossMovie.
To learn more:
Archdiocese of Chicago’s canonization website: