- Search The Registry
- Teacher’s Forum
- Youth Programs
- About Us
- Creating Support
- My Account
James A. Healy
*On this date in 1830, James A. Healy was born. He was a Black priest and the first Black bishop in America.
James Augustine Healy was from a plantation near Macon in Jones County, Georgia. He was the oldest of ten children of Michael Morris Healy and Mary Eliza Smith, a Mulatto slave. Healy's white father emigrated from Ireland in 1818. He won a lottery drawing for 1300 acres of land five years later. In 1829 Healy’s father began a common-law marriage with Eliza who was 16 years old at the time. Because James and his brothers and sisters were considered slaves under Georgia law, his father was forced to enroll them in Northern schools.
James and his oldest brother began at a Quaker school on Long Island. Racism from local residents caused their move to grammar, secondary and collegiate schools at the new Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Healy finished at the top of the first graduating class in 1849 and earned a masters degree two years later. He spent a brief period in a seminary in Montreal, Canada, but his parents' deaths in 1850 forced him to return to Holy Cross. After the estate was settled, he enrolled in the Sulpician Seminary in Paris, France. He was ordained a priest there in 1854. He began his ministry with the diocese of Boston, his home for the next 21 years.
He overcame any resistance with his dedicated service through outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis. Healy moved his three youngest siblings to a home in West Newton. He worked as Bishop John Fitzpatrick's secretary and chancellor and then as Rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the American Civil War. From 1866 to 1875, he was pastor of Boston's largest parish, St. James. During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of the large basilica-type church, which is still standing, and served as the Bishop's "point man" for social action. His efforts led to the establishment of the Home for Destitute Catholic Children, the House of the Good Shepard and St. Ann's Foundling Home.
An admired orator throughout his life, Healy spoke at Church dedications and at Boston's first great Catholic Festival in 1874. He successfully defended a challenge to the Church's tax-exempt status in the Massachusetts Statehouse by pointing out the tremendous amount of money the Church saved the State by doing social welfare work. In 1875, Pope Pius IX named him bishop of Portland, Maine. For the next 25 years, he managed a diocese that included Maine and New Hampshire. Under his administration, 60 churches, 18 schools and an equal number of convents and welfare institutions were built and the Catholic population doubled to nearly 100,000. He was called "the children's Bishop" because of his efforts on the behalf of American Civil War widows and orphans, his opposition to child labor abuses, and the orphanages he had constructed.
It was his custom to let children hitch their sleds to his sleigh so he could give them rides in the winter. Those without sleds rode with him. His pockets always seemed to contain candy or cookies. He bought one-half of an island near Portland, Maine as a summer vacation spot for orphans, for whom he had a special affection. He was known to visit them often and loved to hold the very smallest ones. Bishop Healy took a leadership role in the American Catholic hierarchy. He proposed three major pieces of church legislation that passed the Third Council of Baltimore. He was on the commission that established the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.
He was a member of the Council's commission for Negro and Indian missions. He was also a consultant to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. His Black ancestry was a problem when he traveled to the South, but he insisted on visiting there on church business. His racial background did not seem to affect the many priests who served under him. Bishop Healy died of a heart attack on August 5, 1900. More than 200 priests, seven bishops, many judges and state legislators attended his funeral.
2,000 years of extraordinary achievement
by Jessie Carney Smith
Copyright 1994 Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI