Monday, November 11, 2013

National Black Catholic History Month: Bishop James Augustine Healy

Remember when I said there was some debate about who actually was the first black priest in the U.S.?

Meet another one of the candidates: Bishop James Augustine Healy.

He was one of nine children born to an Irish slaveowner and a woman who was said to be the slaveowner's mixed-race, common-law wife. With their wealthy father's assistance, the Healy children were educated in the northern U.S. Three of the sons became priests. One, Father Patrick Francis Healy, is today considered the first man of recent African descent to become a Jesuit, the first person of recent African descent to earn a PhD and the first person of recent African descent to lead a predominantly white college (my alma mater, Georgetown University). Another brother, Michael Healy, was the first man of recent African descent to command a ship for the U.S. military. All three of the family's daughters also became nuns (including one who may well have been the first woman of African descent to have the position of Mother Superior in an order).

James Augustine Healy was born in Jones County, Georgia, in 1830. After being educated at Quaker schools, Healy attended College of the Holy Cross, where he converted to Catholicism and graduated first in his class in 1849. He was ordained at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1854 (which places his ordination a full 32 years before that of another candidate for the role of first black American priest, Father Augustus Tolton). He returned from France to take up a position at a church in Boston, Mass., where he remained for several years, working with recent Irish Catholic immigrants. In 1875, Pope Pius IX named Healy as bishop of Portland, Maine, where he would remain until his death at age 70. He was the first person of recent African descent named as a bishop in the U.S.

Although Healy may well have been the first black priest and bishop in the U.S., like his siblings, he was quite fair-skinned and publicly identified as Irish-American. Although born a slave, no records indicate that he ever spoke or wrote formally about slavery or the experiences of black Americans.

Follow my National Black Catholic History Month tag for more information on black Catholic notables.

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