QUINCY -- Nashville filmmaker Chris Foley hosted a screening Sunday of his short film that depicts the early life of the Rev. Augustus "Father Gus" Tolton.
The 36-minute "Across" portrays the early life of Tolton, the first African-American priest ordained for a diocese in the United States.
Tolton, who is a candidate for sainthood, is buried in St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy. Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 in Northeast Missouri.
"I always had an interest in American slavery, believing slavery was the original sin of the United States," Foley told an audience at the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church Parish Hall.
Foley, who is Catholic himself, wrote, directed and co-produced the film. Foley has done extensive research into Tolton's life.
"If (Tolton) becomes a saint, his shrine will be in Quincy," Foley said.
Foley is confident Tolton's story will be made into a feature-length presentation, reporting Universal and MGM studios have both shown interest in expanding his short film, which stars Jaylon Gordon as a young Tolton and Nina Hibbler-Webster as Tolton's mother.
Foley said he is hopeful Kevin James will be a part of the full-length film. James is best known for his television roles on "King of Queens" and "Kevin Can Wait," plus movie appearances in a variety of films including "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
Foley and Quincy historian Reg Ankrom, director of the Illinois Historical Society, both contributed to Sunday's presentation. Ankrom provided a plethora of background information on Tolton, his family, the time he spent in Quincy and abroad and what led to his death at age 43 in Chicago.
"(Tolton) knew both tragedy and triumph in Quincy," Ankrom said, spotlighting the prejudice Tolton faced at that time.
Foley spent about three years developing and writing his film, part of which was shot in the Brush Creek and Hannibal areas where Tolton spent his early years before escaping with other family members to Quincy.
"Quincy was known as a slave refuge," Ankrom said.
Tolton was born on a plantation near Brush Creek and eventually was baptized at St. Peter Church near Hannibal.
"As was the custom, slave children were raised in the religion of their owners," Ankrom said.
Tolton's father left the family to join the Union Army during the Civil War but later died of dysentery, according to accounts provided by the Catholic News Service.
In 1862, Tolton's mother, Martha, escaped with her children by rowing them across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. They settled in Quincy.
Tolton showed an early interest in religious matters, and Quincy clergymen privately tutored him. He was permitted to enter St. Francis College -- now Quincy University. Tolton later sought to enter the priesthood buy no American seminary would accept him because of his race.
He eventually started seminary studies in 1880 in Rome. He was ordained on April 24, 1886, and the following day he celebrated Mass for the first time over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome.
Tolton hoped to become an African missionary, but he was assigned to Quincy. He celebrated his first Mass on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface, before he was installed as pastor of Quincy's St. Joseph Church, a black congregation.
Tolton was later reassigned to Chicago, where he organized a black parish called St. Monica's. He remained in Chicago until he died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897, at age 43.