James Augustine Healy

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James Augustine Healy
Bishop of Portland
James Augustine Healy, Bishop of Portland.gif
ChurchCatholic Church
DioceseDiocese of Portland
AppointedFebruary 12, 1875
Term endedAugust 5, 1900 (his death)
PredecessorDavid William Bacon
SuccessorWilliam Henry O'Connell
OrdinationJune 10, 1854
by Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour
ConsecrationJune 2, 1875
by John Joseph Williams
Personal details
Born(1830-04-06)April 6, 1830
DiedAugust 5, 1900(1900-08-05) (aged 70)
Portland, Maine, U.S.
SignatureJames Augustine Healy's signature

James Augustine Healy (April 6, 1830 – August 5, 1900) was an American prelate of the Catholic Church. He was the first known African American to serve as a Catholic priest or bishop. With his predominantly European ancestry, Healy passed for a white man and identified as such.

Born an enslaved person into the Healy family of Georgia, James Healy was the son of a White plantation owner and a mixed-race enslaved woman. He was ordained a priest in 1854 and served as bishop of the Diocese of Portland in Maine and New Hampshire from 1875 until his death in 1900.


Early life[edit]


James Healy was born in Jones County, Georgia, on April 6, 1830. His father, Michael Morris Healy (1796–1850), was a native of County Roscommon, Ireland who became a wealthy cotton planter after settling in Georgia. Healy owned more than 1,500 acres of land near the Ocmulgee River as well as 49[1] to 60[2] enslaved people. James's mother was a mixed-race enslaved woman named Mary Eliza (c. 1813–1850), whom Michael had purchased for $3,700[3] along with her family. He took Mary Eliza as his common-law wife in 1829.[4]

James was the eldest of their ten children. His siblings were:[5]

In his will, Michael Healy referred to his wife as "my trusty woman, Eliza, mother of my...children."[1] Due to the partus sequitur ventrem principle in slave law, children inherited the legal status of their mothers; therefore, the Healy children were born into slavery. Michael was unable to directly free his wife and children as manumission required an act of the Georgia General Assembly in exceptional circumstances.[2] Before their deaths a few months apart in 1850, Michael and Eliza Healy had planned to relocate with their youngest children to a northern state that prohibited slavery.[6]

Racial identity[edit]

Due to their largely European ancestry, the Healy children were light-skinned enough to pass for White and they did not publicize their Black heritage.[7] James and his siblings were recorded as White in official documents, such as census records and death certificates.[6] In later years, James discouraged biographies and variously described his mother as the daughter of an aristocratic Virginia family or having come from Santo Domingo.[8] However, their mixed race was known to some; writing to Archbishop John Hughes in 1859, Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick mentioned that Sherwood Healy "has African blood and it shews [sic] distinctly in his exterior."[1]

Some three decades after the last of the Healy children died, Jesuit sociologist Albert S. Foley published a book in 1954 that detailed their biracial background.[2]


As enslaved people under Georgia law, the Healy children were prohibited from attending school.[9] In 1837, at age seven, Michael Healy took James to New York and enrolled him at a Quaker school in Flushing, New York City that was associated with the Old Quaker Meeting House.[9][10] James continued his education at another Quaker school in Burlington, New Jersey, where he excelled in mathematics and apprenticed to a surveyor.[2] After Michael Healy became acquainted with Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston, he sent his son to the College of the Holy Cross, a newly founded Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts.[10]

James Healy entered Holy Cross in August 1844 and would later recount in his diary, "Today, 5 years ago I entered this college. What a change. Then I was nothing, now I am a Catholic."[5] He and his brothers Hugh, Patrick, and Sherwood were baptized at Holy Cross in November 1844, alongside the sons of Catholic convert Orestes Brownson.[10] James spent his school vacations with the families of local priests in Boston and Cambridge.[5] He was named valedictorian of the first graduating class at Holy Cross in 1849.[3]


Following his graduation from Holy Cross, Healy decided to enter the priesthood and was accepted into Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Montreal, Quebec.[3] After three years in Canada, he went to France in 1852 to complete his theological studies at the Sulpician Seminary in Paris.[2]

Healy was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Boston in Paris on June 10, 1854 at Notre-Dame Cathedral by Archbishop Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour.[11] Healy thus became the first African American to join the Catholic priesthood; however, Augustus Tolton, who was born in 1886, would become the first Catholic priest "publicly known to be black" when he was ordained in 1886.[12]

Healy returned to Boston in August 1854. Knowing there were rumors about his heritage in Boston, he expressed his apprehension about serving there to a confidante: "The mercy of God has placed a poor outcast on a throne of glory that ill becomes him. If I could have been as safe elsewhere as here, I should have desired never to show my face in Boston."[2] He was appointed an assistant at St. John's Parish in the North End and at the House of the Angel Guardian for homeless boys.[10] This was followed by appointments as personal secretary to Bishop Fitzpatrick (December 1854) and chancellor of the diocese (June 1855),[10] which gave him a significant role in diocesan affairs. Healy also served as rector of Holy Cross Cathedral (1862-1866).[3]

During the American Civil War, Healy supported the Union, but was opposed to the Radical Republicans' plans for Reconstruction, believing it would lead to "the super-elevation of the negro."[5] In 1865, he helped establish the Home for Destitute Catholic Children to care for children who had been left fatherless or totally orphaned by the war.[13]

In March 1866, the new Bishop John Williams named Healy as pastor of St. James Parish, the largest Catholic congregation in Boston.[3] In that position, he helped found the House of the Good Shepherd for homeless girls and successfully lobbied against legislation in the Massachusetts General Court to tax Catholic churches.[13] As both rector of the cathedral and pastor of St. James, Healy was succeeded by his brother Sherwood.[1]

Bishop of Portland[edit]

On February 12, 1875, Healy was appointed the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland by Pope Pius IX.[11] He received his episcopal consecration on June 2, 1875, from Archbishop Williams, with Bishop Francis McNeirny and Bishop Patrick O'Reilly serving as co-consecrators, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Maine.[11] As such, he was the first Black Catholic bishop in the United States. It would be 90 years before Bishop Harold Perry became the first publicly recognized individual to hold that distinction.[14]

At the time of Healy's appointment, the Diocese of Portland encompassed the entire states of Maine and New Hampshire.[3] At the beginning of his tenure in 1875, the diocese contained 52 priests and 58 churches to serve a Catholic population of 80,000.[15] By the time of his death in 1900, there were 92 priests, 86 churches, and 96,400 Catholics.[16] The growth of his diocese was extensive enough that he supervised the founding of the Diocese of Manchester when it was split from the Diocese of Portland in 1885.

Early into his tenure as bishop, Healy became involved in a controversy with one of his priests, Jean Ponsardin of Biddeford, Maine. Healy suspected that Ponsardin had been stealing money that the diocese gave to build a new church. After four years of construction, the building only had a basement and unfinished exterior walls.[17] Healy refused to give Ponsardin any more money and suspended him from ministry in October 1877.[17]Ponsardin then appealed the suspension to Rome, which created gossip among Vatican officials.[2] Healy finally agreed to pay Ponsardin's debts on the condition that he leave the diocese.[17] The Ponsardin matter caused such embarrassment for Healy that he submitted his resignation to Pope Leo XIII in 1878, but the pope rejected it.[2]

Healy was one of the Catholic Church's most vocal opponents of the Knights of Labor, a national labor union.[18] He viewed the organization as a secret society and was the only Catholic bishop in America who threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who joined its ranks.[2] However, Healy withdrew his prohibition after Leo XIII issued Rerum novarum in 1891 and endorsed the right of workers to form labor unions.[2]

Healy participated in the third Plenary Council of Baltimore from November to December 1884, and was appointed to serve on the Commission for the Catholic Missions among the Colored People and the Indians.[2] However, he consistently refused the invitations of the Colored Catholic Congress,[13][7] saying, "We are of that Church where there is neither...barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all."[2] Healy celebrated his silver jubilee as a bishop in June 1900 and was given the honorary title of assistant to the papal throne by Leo XIII on that occasion.[19]

Death and legacy[edit]

James Healy died in Portland on August 5, 1900, at age 70.[20] He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in South Portland, Maine, where a Celtic cross honoring his Irish heritage marks his grave.[3]

  • Healy's papers are held by the College of the Holy Cross, the archives of the Archdiocese of Boston and the archives of the Diocese of Portland.[21]
  • The Archdiocese of Boston, Office for Black Catholics, has designated the Bishop James Augustine Healy Award to honor dedicated black parishioners.
  • In 1975, Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan and Bishop Raymond Lessard donated a bronze plaque to be dedicated in Jones County, Georgia, commemorating Healy.
  • The Healey Asylum in Lewiston, Maine, was named in his honor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d O'Toole, James M. (2003). "Passing free: Black in the South, Irish in the North, the Healys Slipped the Bonds of Race in Civil War America". Boston College Magazine.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Foley, Albert S. (1969). Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcaste. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 9780405019258.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "James Augustine Healy: From slave to scholar to shepherd". Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
  4. ^ "Apps - Access My Library - Gale". www.accessmylibrary.com. Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d O'Toole, James M. (1996). "Passing: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920". Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 108: 1–34. JSTOR 25081113.
  6. ^ a b Cavanaugh, Ray (2017). "Window on the Past: The Georgia Healys". Irish America Magazine.
  7. ^ a b Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2005). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517055-9.
  8. ^ Lucey, William Leo (1957). The Catholic Church in Maine. Marshall Jones Company.
  9. ^ a b Ferraro, William M. "Patrick Healy Builds a University". Georgetown University Library. Archived from the original on December 15, 2013.
  10. ^ a b c d e Ebel, John B. (June 3, 1955). "Children of Irish Father, Mulatto Mother". The Catholic Advance.
  11. ^ a b c "Bishop James Augustine Healy". Catholic-Hierarchy.org.
  12. ^ Stack, Liam (June 13, 2019). "Augustine Tolton, Ex-Slave and First Black Catholic Priest in U.S., Takes Step to Sainthood". The New York Times.
  13. ^ a b c Gates, Jr., Henry Louis (2011). Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  14. ^ "Bishop Harold R. Perry, 74, Dies; First Black Prelate in the Century". The New York Times. July 19, 1991.
  15. ^ Sadliers' Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo. New York: D.& J. Sadlier & Co. 1875.
  16. ^ The Catholic Directory, Almanac and Clergy List. Milwaukee: M. H. Wiltzlus & Co. 1900.
  17. ^ a b c Hurst, Violet (November 19, 2021). "BISHOP HEALY WRITES TO ARCHBISHOP WILLIAMS FROM ROME". The Boston Pilot.
  18. ^ James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 188
  19. ^ African-American Heroes & Heroines: 150 True Stories of African-American Heroism. Frederick Fell Publishers. 1998. ISBN 9780811908696.
  20. ^ "'In Harness': Bishop Healy Dies as He Wished to Do". The Boston Globe. Portland, Maine. August 6, 1900. p. 7. Retrieved April 19, 2022 – via Newspapers.com.
  21. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "James Augustine Healy", African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed February 8, 2011


Further reading[edit]