May 21, 2024 // National

Speedway Sculptor Turns Attention to Father Tolton

DANVILLE, Indiana (OSV News) – The thrill couldn’t get any better, or so Forrest Tucker thought.

As a longtime welder for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and as a talented sculptor, Tucker was honored to be asked to create a lasting tribute to the four race car drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Beginning in 2019, Tucker has sculpted four bronze bricks in honor of A. J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears, and Hélio Castroneves, with their names and the years they won the race on the bricks, which have been placed among the Speedway’s original red bricks at the start-finish line.

Forrest Tucker uses a sculpting knife to trim a clay bust of Father Augustus Tolton at his home in Danville, Ind., March 20, 2024. Father Tolton, a candidate for sainthood, is the first recognized priest of African descent in the United States. He was declared “venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019. (OSV News photo/John Shaughnessy, The Criterion)

“To do something in the racing world that is part of the history of the Speedway – and my part will be there long after I’m gone – it’s the honor of a lifetime,” said the now-retired, 65-year-old Tucker, a member of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Danville, which is located about 15 miles west of Indianapolis.

While Tucker will always admire these four legends in the racing world, he has a deeper spiritual connection to someone he also regards as an American hero – someone who is on the path to potential sainthood and whose remarkable life has challenged Tucker to create a sculpture that captures the essence of that person.

This is the unlikely story of the connection between Tucker, a humble sculptor from the countryside of Hendricks County, and Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery and overcame racism to become a boundless source of hope, humanity, and Christ’s love in the slums of Chicago in the late 19th century.

Father Tolton’s sainthood cause began in 2010. In 2019, Pope Francis declared him “venerable,” recognizing that he lived a life of heroic virtue. But Tucker didn’t know anything about the first recognized priest of African descent in the United States until he experienced a small, personal moment of doubt and fear in 2021.

At the time, Tucker’s friend, Cheryl Shockley, had organized a blood drive in honor of her youngest child, Jack Shockley, who was murdered in 2020 at age 24 during an attempted robbery outside a McDonald’s in Indianapolis.

Forrest Tucker poses next to a clay bust of Father Augustus Tolton, at his home in Danville, Ind., March 20, 2024. Father Tolton, a candidate for sainthood, is the first recognized priest of African descent in the United States. He was declared “venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019. (OSV News photo/John Shaughnessy, The Criterion)

But Tucker was reluctant to go to the blood drive. His wife of now 47 years, Dawn, has struggled with multiple sclerosis for most of their married life, and Tucker doesn’t like to leave her on weekends when he doesn’t have help. The blood drive was in the gym at Christ the King Parish on the north side of Indianapolis, a long drive from Danville. Then there were the facts that he had never donated blood and he wasn’t fond of needles.

Still, the pull of friendship with Cheryl and her husband, Steve, finally made him go.

“Cheryl was greeting people as they came in,” Tucker recalled in an interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “She had a table full of prayer cards and pictures of saints. And one of the prayer cards was Father Tolton. She asked me if I’d ever heard of Father Tolton. I said no. She said, ‘Forrest, I think we need to pray to Father Tolton.’”

“Cheryl is one of those persons when they say to do something, you say yes,” Tucker said. “So, I took a prayer card. When my number came up to give blood, I sat in the chair, and I was kind of nervous when I saw the tubes and needles. I decided to pray to Father Tolton, who I knew nothing about.”

As he prayed, Tucker said, “I had the strongest image of Father Tolton with this grieving woman. It was so different and vivid and strong. It was just these two people in a moment. It was a strange thing that happened to me. There were 100 people in that gym. People were talking, and kids were throwing balls, but I didn’t hear any noise during that time. When I got up, I gave Cheryl a hug. I didn’t tell her about it.”

While Father Tolton’s life was marked by an undeniable perseverance, the image of him extending his hand in compassion to a grieving woman persisted in the mind of Tucker.

“I was praying, ‘Holy Spirit, what am I supposed to do with this?’ The image was too complicated, too detailed. I don’t have the ability to do this as a sculpture. It’s way out of my league.”

He began sculpting it in May
of 2022, working on it all summer and fall. In October, “I finally had a sculpture in clay of the image I saw,” he said, but he didn’t know what to do with it.

Conversations with two priests in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis led him to a meeting with the diocesan postulator for Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood – retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago. Bishop Perry invited Tucker to come to Chicago, and they met in April of 2023.

“Forrest’s sculpture of Father Tolton is among the only few sculpted figures of Tolton over the years,” Bishop Perry told The Criterion. “When he showed me his clay model of the sculpture of Father Tolton extending his hand to a downtrodden woman, I immediately became aware that Forrest had captured the temperament of Father Tolton, who ministered all his priesthood to the abject poor in Quincy and in Chicago.”

After casting the sculpture in wax for six months, Tucker’s next step is bringing the sculpture to life in bronze. He plans to finish the process so he can share it with Bishop Perry when the shepherd comes to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress in July.

John Shaughnessy is Assistant Editor at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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