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James Healy: America's First Black Bishop

James Augustine Healy was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1830, as a slave. His father was an Irish immigrant who married his mother, a Black woman, in Santo Domingo. Healy came to Georgia to engage in cotton farming and accumulated a considerable plantation. At that time, however, Georgia did not recognize interracial marriages, so the children were legally slaves. Ten children were born of this union, and three of them became Catholic priests.

After a time the father, Michael Morris Healy, sold his Georgia holdings and moved to New York. In 1837, he placed James Augustine in a Quaker school in Flushing, Long Island. In the early 1840s James pursued further studies in the Franklin Park Quaker School in Burlington, N. J. A chance meeting between the elder Healy and Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston changed the course of James' life.

On a boat sailing up the East coast, Healy met the Bishop, and told him his life story. The result was that the Bishop persuaded the elder Healy to send his four sons to the newly-founded Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Mass, and his oldest daughter, Martha, to the Notre Dame Sisters' school in Boston. At Holy Cross, James and his brothers soon became Catholics, returning to the faith of their father's birthplace.

James Augustine proved to be a brilliant student, and in 1849 graduated first in the first class to be graduated from Holy Cross. James had grown to love the Church and was determined to become a priest. He entered the Sulpician Monastery in Montreal in 1849, and after receiving the Subdiaconate in 1852, James Augustine decided to transfer to the famous Sulpician Seminary in France. As a student here, he continued to make a brilliant scholastic record, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1854, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He returned to Boston and Bishop Fitzpatrick, who considered the young priest his protege.

His first assignment was as an assistant at the House of the Angel Guardian, a home for orphan boys. He soon made a name for himself in that part of the city's cholera-ridden slums. He administered the sacraments to the cholera victims, along with the other killers of the poor — typhoid, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Despite his color and his origins, the Irish Catholics of Boston came to accept him as one of their own. After all, he was half Irish. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Fitzpatrick named him to the Cathedral staff and made the young priest his personal secretary, handing the correspondence with other Bishops, the 61 priests of the diocese, the seminarians and the religious orders working in the diocese.

In June of 1855, the Bishop appointed Father Healy as the Chancellor of the diocese, and authorized him to set up the first chancery office. In 1862 came more duties when he was made Rector of the Cathedral. Bishop Fitzpatrick died in 1866, and the new Bishop made Father Healy the pastor of St. James Parish, the largest parish in Boston. In 1874 the Holy See announced that Father Healy had been made the Bishop of Portland, Maine. He was the first Black Bishop of the diocese. 

One of the legends concerning his career as pastor at St. James has to do with the great Boston fire of 1870. The fire came toward his church, but Father Healy came out in the path of the flames, with prayer book in hand, and stood there praying. With a sudden change in the wind, the course of the fire was redirected and the church was saved. Thus, to his parishioners he proved his faith and his courage in the path of a fire that destroyed 800 buildings in a 65-acre area.

In 1874 Father Healy reached the peak of his career when the Holy See announced that he had been elevated to the post of Bishop of Portland, Maine. He was thus the first Black priest to become a Bishop in the United States.  He presided over this diocese of the far north for 25 years. His greatest concern in his new diocese was the poor, of whom there were a large number, both Irish and French-Canadian. He himself went out regularly to administer the last sacraments to the ill, or to anyone who was dying as the results of a street brawl, which were common at that time in his pioneer diocese. He also made it a point to promote education, and did his best to provide for Catholic schooling for the poorest of the children of his diocese. He established a Catholic school in Portland, and had a way of knowing which of the children attending the school came from needy families. Then he would appear at their house with food and clothing. This was a time when few of the working people made more than nine dollars a week. Thus, the Bishop made himself a one-man relief agency for those in distress. Bishop Healy brought in the Sisters of Mercy to staff parochial schools, and he started a junior college for girls. During his 25-year term as Bishop, his diocese prospered. More than 60 new churches were built, along with 68 mission stations, and 18 more parochial schools were founded. An equal number of convents and welfare institutions were built. The Catholic population of the diocese more than doubled to 96,000 by the end of his career.

For a number of years, Bishop Healy had suffered from heart problems, and he died suddenly at age 70, from a heart attack. After a sleepless night, during which his doctors felt he was only suffering from acute indigestion, his nurse told him that he would have a take a long rest. "Yes, and I am finally going to get one," he answered, and within a short while the life of the nation's first Black Bishop came to an end. He was 70 years of age. He was buried in a Catholic cemetery in the midst of the bodies of his flock. Today a large Celtic cross marks his last resting place.

Copyright  1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1997