Healy, James Augustine 1830–1900
James Augustine Healy 1830–1900
James Augustine Healy built a remarkable career in the Catholic Church at a time when racism prevented most African Americans from obtaining a decent job. Highly educated and known for his oratorical skills, he eventually became the bishop of Portland, Maine. His race did not impede his effectiveness as a unifying force within the Catholic Church during a time of virulent anti-Catholic sentiment. In spite of Healy’s success, some twentieth-century critics have faulted him for ignoring the problems that plagued his race in his single-minded zeal for his faith. Even so, his accomplishments as a church leader are not to be denied.
James Augustine Healy was born on April 6, 1830, the oldest of the ten children born to Michael Morris Healy and Mary Eliza Smith. Like many mulatto children born in the days of slavery, James and his siblings were the offspring of a white plantation owner and a black slave woman. The relationship between his parents was a common-law marriage later recognized by the Catholic Church as a legitimate marriage. Michael Healy was an Irish immigrant who deserted the British Army in Nova Scotia during the War of 1812. Traveling to Georgia, he acquired enough land in 1828 to start a plantation and used slave labor to run what became a 1600-acre farm. Shortly thereafter, Michael entered into a union with Mary Eliza Smith which lasted until their deaths in 1850. The fact that the pair lived as man-and-wife did not shield their children from Southern law, which stated that any child born to a slave woman was automatically a slave. Given the virtual absence of emancipation laws, Michael prevented the enslavement of his children by sending them up North to be educated; James left his Georgia home for a Quaker boarding school in 1837.
As a black child and the son of a Roman Catholic Irishman, James found himself subjected to both racism and anti-Catholic slurs during his time in Quaker boarding schools, first in Long Island and later in Burlington, New Jersey. Two of his brothers, Hugh and Patrick, had similar experiences when they joined him at the Northern schools. The Healy brothers experienced a greater degree of acceptance after entering the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. The young men excelled in their studies at the newly-established Catholic college. Patrick later became the first African American to earn a doctorate and eventually became president of Georgetown University. Several of the Healy siblings went on to establish distinguished careers in the Catholic Church. Healy himself graduated first in his class in 1849.
A year before graduation Healy decided upon a life in the priesthood. However, the Jesuit novitiate was in the slave state of Maryland, so he enrolled in the Sulpician Seminary in Montreal, Canada. The years of Healy’s seminary training in Montreal and, after 1852, at the Sulpician Seminary in France, were not without tragedy. In 1850 both his parents died within a span of four months, leaving behind three children under the age of four and a sizeable estate to settle. The responsibilities of carrying out the mandates of his father’s will occupied
At a Glance…
Born on April 6,1830, near Clinton, Georgia; died of a heart attack on August 5, 1900; son of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish plantation owner, and Mary Eliza Smith, a mulatto slave. Education: College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, B.A., 1849 (degree officially came from Georgetown University because his true alma mater was not chartered until 1874); Sulpician Seminary, Montreal, Canada, M.A., 1851; Sulpician Seminary, France, attended, 1852-1854; Religion: Catholic.
Career: Ordained as the first African American Catholic priest, June 10, 1854; Moon Street Church, Boston, assistant to the parish priest, 1854; secretary to Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick, 1854-1855; first chancellor of the diocese of Boston, 1855-1857; vicar general, 1857-1862; rector of a temporary cathedral, Boston, 1862-1866; St. James Church, pastor, 1866-1875; bishop, Portland, Maine, 1875-1900.
Healy into the 1860s. The Georgia property was sold and the proceeds invested for the benefit of the nine surviving children. In addition, James Healy arranged for the sale of the plantation’s slaves, and eventually settled his younger siblings on a farm in Newton, Massachusetts. The death of his parents also made it difficult for him to prove the legitimacy of their marriage—documentation necessary for him to enter his minor orders but impossible to achieve since Southern law did not allow interracial marriage. However, the Catholic Church resolved the issue by recognizing the common-law marriage as legitimate, which allowed Healy to proceed with his orders in 1851.
The untimely death of Healy’s brother, Hugh, in 1853 changed the course of Healy’s career. Hugh, the second-oldest in the family, had borne much of the family burden while Healy was in Paris. When one of the younger brothers decided to quit seminary in Montreal and join Healy in Europe, Hugh placed him on a ship leaving the New York harbor on September 1, 1853. As the boat began its journey, Hugh embarked on his customary rowing excursion, waving to his brother’s boat as it passed him. Just then, a steamboat swamped Hugh’s rowboat, forcing him to swim for shore. Although he made it safely to land, his exposure to the polluted harbor water brought on a fatal case of typhoid; he died sixteen days later. With the family caretaker now dead, Healy decided against a teaching career in theology—which would require significantly more education—in order to return as quickly as possible to America. He finished up the studies necessary to become ordained in the priesthood and became a Catholic priest on June 10, 1854. Healy was the first African-American Catholic priest.
Healy’s first position as a priest was as an assistant to a parish priest in Boston. However, his friendship with Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick quickly led to an appointment as his secretary. Only a year after taking orders, Healy became the chancellor of the diocese. Within two years of that promotion he became vicar general. Fitzpatrick’s declining health left Healy with extra responsibilities, which included overseeing the construction of a new cathedral in Boston. When Fitzpatrick traveled to Europe for a full year’s rest under doctors’ orders in 1862, he gave power of attorney to Healy. Healy also became rector of the new temporary cathedral, the Civil War having delayed the construction of the permanent building. Healy drew on his previous experience as the administrator of a home for orphaned boys to establish the Home for Destitute Catholic Children. Just a few years later he founded a similar refuge for homeless girls known as the House of the Good Shepherd.
Even at this early stage, Healy’s delicate health, coupled with an enormous workload, troubled him enough to necessitate a half year’s rest in 1863. Although Fitzpatrick returned to America in 1864, he died less than two years later. The death of his mentor led to another promotion for Healy when the new bishop, John Joseph Williams, appointed him as pastor of St. James Church. The church was the largest Catholic congregation in Boston, and Healy worried that both his Southern and racial heritage would undermine his authority over his primarily Irish parishioners. However, his fears proved unfounded as his congregation warmed to their new priest’s compassion and firm leadership.
Healy enjoyed tremendous success in his diocese. Known for his effectiveness and oratorical skills, his popularity was in no way threatened by racial prejudice; except for a rumor that linked his parentage to the African-American cook at the rectory, he faced little of the racism that was so prevalent in post-Civil War America. Some critics attributed his acceptance to the fact that he never associated himself with the African-American community, although his race was a matter of public knowledge. Indeed, he refused to speak at the Congress of Colored Catholics three separate times, and did not participate in organizations that were specifically African-American. Healy’s accomplished siblings also steadfastly steered away from racial issues, sparking some twentieth-century criticism for their willingness to blend in with white society; Cyprian Davis in his book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, wrote about the Healy family: “[They] did not enter into solidarity with either the African American community as such or even the black Catholic community….they never used their position to champion the cause of their fellow blacks. Nor did they ever give their fellow blacks the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of their own noteworthy achievements.”
If he did not act on behalf of his race, James Healy was very active on behalf of the Catholic Church. Healy faced the difficult task of combating anti-Catholic prejudice which was rampant both in public sentiment and law in Massachusetts. Healy was especially concerned about the placement of Catholic orphans with Protestant families in western states, far from their religious roots. He also crusaded against a state law that forbade Catholics from holding services in any public institution, which included the administration of last rites to the dying. One of Healy’s most impressive accomplishments was his testimony before the Massachusetts legislature in 1874, condemning a proposed law to tax churches. His involvement with such political endeavors and charities, as well as his undertaking of the construction of a new church, made him a religious leader of such fame that he attracted the attention of church leaders in Rome. On February 12, 1875, Pope Pius IX named him the bishop of Portland, Maine.
James Healy enjoyed a 25-year career in Portland with much the same success, although his diverse flock extended into New Hampshire and included French Canadians, Irish immigrants, and Native Americans. He also encountered the same anti-Catholic prejudice in his new home state. During his first tour of the area’s churches, he found one destroyed by arson. Healy continued his crusade to hold Catholic services in public institutions when he fought to minister to Catholic youth imprisoned in a state reformatory. The anti-Catholic agitation was so entrenched in society that it proved difficult to circumvent, and the situation saw no resolution until 1898. Part of its entrenchment stemmed from its support by secret societies, and Healy condemned Catholic involvement in any such organizations. Initially targeting an early labor union, the Knights of Labor, as one such organization, Healy helped found the first Catholic labor union in Portland. Healy excelled at unifying the various Catholic churches, and extended the influence of the Church through the building of sixty parishes, eighteen schools, and nearly seventy charitable institutions. One of the schools established under Healy’s administration in 1886 was St. Mary’s College, the first Catholic college in the state.
The bishops with whom Healy now associated accepted him as readily as the flocks he served. His suggestions for compromises on contentious issues within the Church gained the approval of his peers at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. That same year Healy saw the man he nominated installed as bishop of the new diocese of New Hampshire. Healy himself was chosen as a permanent member of the Commission for the Negro and Native American Missions.
Healy was in great demand as a speaker and often overworked himself in his various roles within the Church. As a result, serious illness sometimes forced him to rest away from the harsh Maine climate. As he aged, he spent less and less time in the state during the winter months so as not to aggravate problems with his throat and lungs. However, it was a heart condition that ultimately killed him. In 1893 he suffered a stroke and was unable to speak for a time. A year of rest and travel helped him to full recovery, but on August 3, 1900, he had a mild heart attack. The initial diagnosis concluded it was indigestion—a conclusion proved tragically wrong when he suffered a massive heart attack the next day. Healy died on August 5, just two months after celebrating his 25th anniversary as bishop of Portland. He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside of Portland.
Davis, Cyprian, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Crossroad, 1990.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Norton, 1982.
Foley, Albert S., Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcast, Farrar, Strauss, 1954.
God’s Men of Color, Farrar, Strauss, 1955.
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