James Augustine Healy

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James Augustine Healy
Bishop of Portland
James Augustine Healy, Bishop of Portland.gif
PredecessorDavid William Bacon
SuccessorWilliam Henry O'Connell
Ordination10 June 1854
Consecration2 June 1875
by John Joseph Williams
Personal details
BornApril 6, 1830
Macon, Georgia, United States
DiedAugust 5, 1900(1900-08-05) (aged 70)
DenominationRoman Catholic

James Augustine Healy (April 6, 1830 – August 5, 1900) was an American Roman Catholic priest and the second bishop of Portland, Maine. He was the first Black Catholic priest and bishop in the United States (though he identified as and passed for White).

Born in Georgia to a mixed-race slave mother and Irish immigrant father, he was ordained in 1854 and consecrated in 1875; knowledge of his African ancestry was largely restricted to his mentors in the Church.[1] (Augustus Tolton, a former slave who was publicly known to be African-American when ordained in 1886, is for that reason sometimes credited as the first African-American Catholic priest rather than Healy.)

Healy was one of nine mixed-race siblings of the Catholic Healy family of Georgia who survived to adulthood and achieved many "firsts" in United States history; his brothers Patrick and Alexander also became Catholic priests.

James is credited with greatly expanding the Catholic church in Maine at a time of increased Irish immigration. He also served the Abenaki people and many parishioners of French Canadian descent who were traditionally Catholic. He spoke both English and French.

Family and education[edit]

James Healy was the eldest of 10 siblings born near Macon, Georgia, in 1830 to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant planter, and his common-law wife Eliza Smith (sometimes recorded as Clark), a mixed-race enslaved African American. Born in 1795, the senior Healy immigrated from County Roscommon in Ireland in 1818. He eventually acquired 1,500–1,600 acres (6.1–6.5 km2) of land in Jones County, Georgia, across the Ocmulgee River from the market town of Macon, Georgia.

He became among the more prominent and successful planters of the area, and eventually owned 49-60 slaves for his cotton plantation, which was labor-intensive.[2][3] Among these was a young slave woman named Mary Eliza Smith, whom he took as his wife in 1829.[4] Various accounts have described Mary Eliza as "slave" or "former slave," and as octoroon, mulatto or African American (the latter term includes people of mixed ancestry). The common-law marriage of Michael and Mary Healy was not unusual among immigrants; but state law prohibited interracial marriage. Most of their ten children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood, achieved noteworthy success as adults, helped by Healy's financial success and the educations he gained for them in the North.[4]

Beginning in 1837, like many other wealthy planters with mixed-race children, Michael Healy started sending his sons to school in the North. James, Hugh and Patrick went to Quaker schools in Flushing, New York, and Burlington, New Jersey. Later they each attended the newly opened College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.[2] James graduated as valedictorian of the college's first graduating class in 1849. Younger brothers Sherwood began at Holy Cross in 1844, and Michael in 1849 in its grammar school.[citation needed]


Following graduation, James chose to enter the priesthood. He could not study at the Jesuit novitiate in Maryland, as it was a slave state. With the help of John Bernard Fitzpatrick, James entered a Sulpician seminary in Montreal. In 1852, he transferred to study at Saint Sulpice Seminary in Paris, working toward a doctorate and a career as a seminary professor. There he became fluent in French.

After a change of heart, he decided to become a pastor. On June 10, 1854, he was ordained at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a priest to serve in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the first African American to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest; at the time he identified as and was accepted as white Irish Catholic.[1] During the 19th century, numerous Americans studied for the priesthood in Paris.

When Healy returned to the United States, he became an assistant pastor in Boston. He served the Archbishop, who helped establish his standing in the church. In 1866 Healy became the pastor of St. James Church, the largest Catholic congregation in Boston. In 1874 when the Boston legislature was considering taxation of churches, Healy defended Catholic institutions as vital organizations that helped the state both socially and financially. He also condemned certain laws that were generally enforced only on Catholic institutions. He founded several Catholic charitable institutions to care for the many poor Irish immigrants who had arrived during the Great Famine years.[citation needed]

His success in the public sphere led to his appointment by Pope Pius IX to the position of second bishop of Portland, Maine. Healy was consecrated as Bishop of Portland on June 2, 1875, becoming the first African American to be consecrated a Catholic bishop. For 25 years he governed his large diocese, supervising also the founding of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, when it was split from Portland in 1885. During his tenure in Maine, which was a period of extensive immigration from Catholic countries, Healy oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents, and 18 schools.[5] He also served the many French Canadians and Abenaki people in Portland , who were historically Catholic. Healy was the only member of the American Catholic hierarchy to excommunicate men who joined the Knights of Labor, a national union, which reached its peak of power in 1886.[6]

Two months before his death, Healy was called as assistant to the Papal throne by Pope Leo XIII, a position in the Catholic hierarchy just below that of cardinal.[7]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Healy's papers are held by the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester; the Archives of the Archdiocese of Boston; and the Archives of the Diocese of Portland, Maine.[8]
  • 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 of Atlanta and Bishop Raymond Lessard of Savannah donated a bronze plaque to be dedicated in Jones County, Georgia, commemorating the Georgia-born Healy.[5]
  • The Healey Asylum in Lewiston, Maine, was named in his honor.


All four of the older Healy brothers (James, Hugh, Patrick, and Sherwood) graduated from Holy Cross College. Hugh decided to go into business in New York. He died at age 21 from an infection contracted in a boating accident. Patrick and Sherwood each entered the priesthood.

Patrick Francis Healy became a Jesuit, earned a PhD in Paris, and is now considered the first African American to have gained the degree. He was named a dean at Georgetown University in 1866. At the age of 39, in 1874, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States.

Alexander Sherwood Healy was also ordained as a priest, and earned his doctorate degree at the Sulpician Academy in Paris.[4] He became an expert in canon law and Gregorian chant. After working with his brother James in Boston for a time, Sherwood was appointed director of the Catholic seminary in Troy, New York, and later as rector of the Cathedral in Boston. His career was cut short by his death at age 39.[2][9]

Younger brother Michael Augustine Healy preferred a more adventureous life. He left school at the age of 16 to go to sea.[2] In England, he signed aboard the East Indian clipper Jumna as a cabin boy in 1854; he quickly became an expert seaman, rising to an officer.[10] In 1864, Michael Healy returned to his family in Boston.[citation needed]

He applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor to the Coast Guard) and was accepted as a Third Lieutenant, his commission being signed by President Lincoln.[10][11] In 1880, Healy was assigned command of a US government ship. (Since the late 20th century, he has become known as the first African American to gain such command.) During the last two decades of the 19th century, Captain Healy was essentially the federal government's law enforcement presence in the vast Alaska Territory.[10] Commissioned in 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard research icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) is named in his honor.[12]

The three Healy daughters became nuns. Martha, the first, left the order after several years and moved to Boston, where her brothers were. She married an Irish immigrant and they had one son. Josephine Healy joined the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph in Canada. Eliza Healy (1846–1918) joined the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. After teaching for years at Catholic schools in Quebec and Ontario, in 1903 she was appointed as Mother Superior at a Catholic convent and school, the Villa, in St. Albans, Vermont. Since the late 20th century and the reappraisal of the Healy family members, she has been known as the first African American to gain the position as abbess.[13] Eugene Healy (1848-?), the youngest son, was reported by Albert S. Foley, biographer of James A. Healy, to have died soon after birth.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b A.D. Powell, XVIII. "When Are Irish-Americans Not Good Enough to Be Irish-American? Racial Kidnapping and the Healy Family", in Passing for What You Really Are: Essays in Support of Multiracial Whiteness, Palm Coast, Florida: Backintyme, 2005, accessed 8 February 2011
  2. ^ a b c d "Passing free - BCM - Summer 2003". bcm.bc.edu. Retrieved 2017-07-14.
  3. ^ Albert S. Foley, Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcaste], Farrar, Strauss & Young, 1954, pp. 6-7. He says Healy owned more than 1600 acres and 60 slaves by 1840.
  4. ^ a b c "Apps - Access My Library - Gale". www.accessmylibrary.com. Retrieved 2017-07-14.
  5. ^ a b "James Augustine Healy", Georgia Bulletin, 16 March 1978
  6. ^ James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 188
  7. ^ African-American Heroes & Heroines: 150 True Stories of African-American Heroism. Frederick Fell Publishers. 1998. ISBN 9780811908696.
  8. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "James Augustine Healy", African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 8 February 2011
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-06-10. Retrieved 2010-02-16.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ a b c "Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS", US Coast Guard, accessed 10 July 2012
  11. ^ The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915, Irving H. King, Naval Institute Press, 1996, p. 39, ISBN 1-55750-458-X
  12. ^ "USCGC Healy (WAGB-20)". www.uscg.mil. Retrieved 2017-07-14.
  13. ^ "Eliza Healy, Sister Mary Magdalen (1846-1918), accessed 7 February 2011
  14. ^ Foley (1954), Bishop Healy, p. 12


Further reading[edit]