Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
Books tell tales of African-American priest, life in St. Paul, Occupied Berlin

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 1, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Some weeks back, the fascinating blog by Rocco Palmo titled “Whispers in the Loggia” spoke of a reprinting of Sister Caroline Hemesath’s 1973 biography of the first African American priest. From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton (1854-1897) is published in hardcover by Ignatius Press at $17.95.

Sister Caroline, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa, in an engaging style tells the dramatic story of Augustine Tolton, whose mother takes him and his sister on the Underground Railroad to freedom in Quincy, Ill. Augustine loves his Catholic faith and wishes to become a priest. But no seminary in the United States will accept him. Local priests, diocesan and Franciscan, tutor Augustine, hoping that someday a seminary somewhere will accept him.

Finally in 1880 Augustine is accepted by the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide with his hope being to become a missionary priest to Africa. At the time of his ordination, the administration of the seminary asks him to return to his hometown in Illinois and work with the growing number of black Catholics.

Father Tolton has moments of success in Quincy, followed by devastating disappointment as he faces racism seemingly from all quarters. When his pastor and bishop tell him to leave, he is received by the Archbishop of Chicago to start the first black parish in the city.

He begins St. Monica Parish on the near South Side and has moments of progress, followed by financial difficulties and personal discouragement. He dies of heat stroke in the summer of 1897.

From Slave to Priest strikingly reveals a section of American Church history many of us are not familiar with. Here is a book made for parish school and church libraries. It awaits the call of student research papers and book reviews. It is a book for all seasons.


In Minnesota for a week at Christmas, my sister Patty and I got invited to a wonderful family gathering of dear friends on Christmas Day. As part of the festivities, everyone pulled a string on a very large wrapped Christmas gift. At the end of each string was a gift for that person. At the end of my string was a book titled Until They Bring the Streetcars Back, by Stanley Gordon West. It is published by Lexington-Marshall Publishing of Shakopee, Minnesota in large-style soft cover for $12.

A number of the college-age students present told me it was one of their favorite novels. Having read it recently I can understand. It puts on no airs. It tells a wonderful story of Cal Gant and a group of classmates going to school at St. Paul Central in 1949. Within the context of typical high school events is a mystery that pulls the reader all the way to the final page.

Until They Bring the Streetcars Back is filled with the atmosphere and feeling of St. Paul, Minn., in the post-war period.

If parents and older teens were ever looking for a book to read and talk about together, this is it. It crosses the age barriers and helps us see ourselves as we are (or as we were).


The book The Good German by Joseph Kanon was recently made into a movie with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett playing the main characters. For some reason, the film has not been widely released.

The Good German is available in popular paperback from Picador USA for $7.99.

Kanon tells a Graham Greene-type thriller in Berlin just after the surrender of Germany in the summer of 1945. Jake Geismar, a journalist for Collier’s returns to Berlin and suddenly finds himself caught in the web of strange death of a young American soldier in Occupied Berlin. Throughout the mystery there is a love story between Jake who had been in Berlin before the War and a German woman named Lena.

The key to the book is the moral dilemmas that come to the fore throughout the story. Why did people knowingly allow Jews and others to be persecuted and killed? One particularly poignant sequence involves a Jewish woman who became an informer. She would hang around shoe repair and coffee shops and turn in the people she believed were Jews. At her trial we hear the arguments back and forth that challenge us to condemn her or show her compassion. The tug-of-war over moral choices makes The Good German a fascinating novel. There is lot to talk about for a parish book club.

Short Takes

• Poor Clare Sister Patricia Proctor of Spokane has a new addition to her “Inspirational Stories” series, titled 101 Inspirational Stories of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The stories come from people all over the world. In addition, there are longer articles on Reconciliation, several of which were originally published as “Catholic Updates” by St. Anthony Press. The book is published by Franciscan Monastery for $14.95. It is available at Sister Patricia’s web site:

• Leone Nunley of Yakima with Dean Merrill has written the dramatic story of her son David’s motorcycle crash and what followed. Nunley tells the journey of her family with the help of countless volunteers who nurse David back to a fulfilling life even with the loss of much of his brain function. Since 2001, David lives near the family in his own duplex with a caretaker. Fighting for David is published by Tyndale House Publishers in softcover for $14.95.

• Hollywood scriptwriter and committed Catholic Barbara Nicolosi spoke at Gonzaga University on Jan. 23 on “Why Movies Matter.” She had strong opinions on many media issues and held the audience’s rapt attention. One of her lively quotations was: “To tell you the truth, I’ll take an R-rated true movie over a G-rated saccharin lie movie any day because with the R-rated film I’m being challenged and I’m growing.” Nicolosi has formed a group called Act One Inc. to help teach talented Christian artists for careers in the film and television industry.

• Over a year ago in Missoula at a documentary film festival I saw filmmaker Joe Cultrera’s deeply personal and devastatingly difficult to watch film of the story of his brother Paul’s sexual abuse by an Archdiocese of Boston priest, Father Joseph Birmingham, in the early 1960s. The film, titled Hand of God, was shown recently on PBS stations across the country.

The use of statues and photographs, hosts and water, as symbols is overdone, from a cinematic point of view.

Hand of God is a powerful critique of the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church. It forces the viewer to see reality as the person abused sees it. It allows us to see the damage to families. It forces us to face secrecy and cover-up. Anyone on a parish committee seeking to find ways to present options of reconciliation should see this film. Anyone who seeks to bring hope through the darkness should experience this film.

The film is available for both VHS and DVD from at $24.99.

(Father Caswell is a priest of and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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