James Augustine Healy

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The Most Reverend
James Augustine Healy
Bishop of Portland
James Augustine Healy, Bishop of Portland.gif
Predecessor David William Bacon
Successor William Henry O'Connell
Ordination 10 June 1854
Consecration 2 June 1875
by John Joseph Williams
Personal details
Born April 6, 1830
Macon, Georgia, United States
Died August 5, 1900(1900-08-05) (aged 70)
Nationality American
Denomination Roman Catholic

James Augustine Healy (April 6, 1830 – August 5, 1900) was the first Roman Catholic priest and the first bishop in the United States of any known African descent. He identified and was accepted as a white Irish American, as he was of majority Irish ancestry; when he was ordained in 1854, his mixed-race ancestry was not widely known outside his mentors in the Catholic Church.[1] (Augustus Tolton, a former slave who was publicly known to be black when ordained in 1886, is therefore sometimes credited as the first black Catholic priest in the U.S.) 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.

Youth, Education[edit]

James Healy was the eldest of 10 siblings born near Macon, Georgia, in 1839[2] to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant plantation owner, and his common-law wife Eliza Smith, a mixed-race African American slave. Born in 1795, the senior Healy immigrated from County Roscommon in Ireland in 1818. He eventually acquired 1,500 acres (6.1 km2) of land in Jones County, Georgia, across the Ocmulgee River from the market town of Macon. He became among the more prominent and successful planters of the area, and eventually owned 49 slaves for his cotton plantation, which was labor-intensive.[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 mulatto or African American (the latter term includes people of mixed ancestry). The common-law marriage of Michael and Mary Healy was not such an unusual occurrence among immigrants; 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 ensured 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. Later they each attended the newly opened College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.[3] 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.


Following graduation, James wished 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. 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 and served the Archbishop, who helped establish his standing. 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 existing laws, which were generally enforced only on Catholic institutions. He founded several Catholic charitable institutions to care for the many poor immigrants who had arrived during the Great Famine years.

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 consecrated a Catholic bishop.[5] 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 time 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.[6]

Healy was the only member of the American hierarchy to excommunicate men who joined the Knights of Labor, a national union, which reached its peak of power in 1886.[7]

Two months before his death he was made assistant to the Papal throne by Pope Leo XIII, a position in the Catholic hierarchy just below that of cardinal.[8]

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.[9]
  • 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.[6]
  • 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. Hugh decided to go into business in New York, but died from an infection contracted in a boating accident at age 21. 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] where he became an expert in canon law and Gregorian chant. After working with his brother in Boston, he was appointed director of the Catholic seminary in Troy, New York, and rector of the Cathedral in Boston. His career was cut short by his death at age 39.[3][10]

Younger brother Michael Augustine Healy preferred a more adventuresome life. He left the school at the age of 16 to go to sea.[3] In England, he signed aboard the East Indian clipper Jumna as a cabin boy in 1854 and quickly became an expert seaman, rising to an officer.[2] In 1864, Michael Healy returned to his family in Boston. He applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service and was accepted as a Third Lieutenant, his commission being signed by President Lincoln.[2][11] In 1880, Healy became the first African American to be assigned command of a US government ship. 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.[2] 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, although Martha, the first, soon left the order 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 the first African-American Mother Superior at a Catholic convent and school, the Villa, in St. Albans, Vermont.[13]

Eugene Healy (1848-?), the youngest son, struggled in his life and did not achieve as much as his siblings.

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 "Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS", US Coast Guard, accessed 10 July 2012
  3. ^ a b c d http://bcm.bc.edu/issues/summer_2003/ft_passing.html
  4. ^ a b c http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-26885083_ITM
  5. ^ http://www.aaregistry.com/detail.php?id=945
  6. ^ a b "James Augustine Healy", Georgia Bulletin, 16 March 1978
  7. ^ James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 188
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "James Augustine Healy", African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 8 February 2011
  10. ^ http://libraries.cua.edu/achrcua/FCC/FCC_intro.html
  11. ^ The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915, Irving H. King, Naval Institute Press, 1996, p. 39, ISBN 1-55750-458-X
  12. ^ [2]
  13. ^ "Eliza Healy, Sister Mary Magdalen (1846-1918), accessed 7 February 2011


Further reading[edit]