James Augustine Healy was an American Roman Catholic priest and the second bishop of Portland, Maine; he was the first bishop in the United States of any known African descent. Born in Georgia to a mixed-race slave mother and Irish immigrant father, he identified and was accepted as white Irish American, as he was half Irish and majority European ancestry. When he was ordained in 1854, his mixed-race ancestry was not widely known outside his mentors in the Catholic Church. (Augustus Tolton, a former slave who was publicly known to be black when ordained in 1886, is 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. He is credited with greatly expanding the Catholic church in Maine at a time of increased Irish immigration; he also served Abenaki people and many parishioners of French Canadian descent who were traditionally Catholic. He spoke both English and French.
Family and education
James Healy was the eldest of 10 siblings born near Macon, Georgia, in 1839 to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant planter, and his common-law wife Eliza Smith (sometimes recorded as Clark), a mixed-race enslaved African American. Born in 1795, the senior Healy immigrated from County Roscommon in Ireland in 1818. He eventually acquired 1,500–1,600 acres (6.1–6.5 km2) of land in Jones County, Georgia, across the Ocmulgee River from the market town of Macon, Georgia.
He became among the more prominent and successful planters of the area, and eventually owned 49-60 slaves for his cotton plantation, which was labor-intensive. Among these was a young slave woman named Mary Eliza Smith, whom he took as his wife in 1829. 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 unusual among immigrants, but 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 gained for them in the North.
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, and Burlington, New Jersey. Later they each attended the newly opened College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. 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. 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. He served the Archbishop, who helped establish his standing in the church. 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 certain laws that were generally enforced only on Catholic institutions. He founded several Catholic charitable institutions to care for the many poor Irish 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 the second bishop of Portland, Maine. Healy was consecrated as Bishop of Portland on June 2, 1875, becoming the first African American to be consecrated a Catholic bishop. 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. During that period, he also served his Abenaki and French Canadian parishioners. He spoke French and had his priests also learn French.
Healy was the only member of the American Catholic hierarchy to excommunicate men who joined the Knights of Labor, a national union, which reached its peak of power in 1886.
Two months before his death, Healy was called as assistant to the Papal throne by Pope Leo XIII, a position in the Catholic hierarchy just below that of cardinal.