James Augustine Healy (April 6, 1830 – August 5, 1900) was the first Roman Catholic priest and the first bishop in the United States of any known African descent. He identified and was accepted as a white Irish American, as he was of majority Irish ancestry; when he was ordained in 1854, his mixed-race ancestry was not widely known outside his mentors in the Catholic Church. 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.
Healy was the first-born child of Michael and Mary Eliza Healy. His father was as a former Irish soldier who married his mother, a mixed-race African woman, in Santo Domingo. Michael Healy immigrated to Georgia to engage in cotton farming and accumulated a considerable plantation. At that time Georgia law prohibited interracial marriage. Therefore the ten children were born of this union, were considered illegitimate and enslaved at birth under Georgia law. These laws banned them from attending school within the state, so to receive an education James’s parents sent their children to Quaker schools in the north in the 1840s.
In 1844, James Healy was sent to grammar, secondary and collegiate schools at the new Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. James graduated as valedictorian in the first graduating class of 1849. Two years later he earned a master’s degree. It was at Holy Cross where James decided to enter the priesthood. He enrolled in the Sulpician Seminary in Paris and in 1854 was ordained at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, thus becoming the first African American to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. On his return to the United States, James began his ministry as assistant priest with the diocese of Boston where he served for the next twenty one years.
In 1875, Pope Pius IX named James Bishop of Portland, Maine. In the following twenty five years under his administration, 60 churches, 18 schools and numerous convents and welfare institutions were established. Membership in the Catholic Church in his jurisdiction doubled to about 100,000. James Healy would also manage the diocese of Maine and New Hampshire.
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. Bishop Healy also served on the commission that established the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and he was a member of the Council’s commission for Negro and Indian mission. Despite his church responsibilities Bishop Healy also found time to lobby on social issues such as Indian rights and child labor laws.
On April 5, 1900, Bishop James A. Healy died of a heart attack in Portland, Maine. Over 200 priests, seven bishops, many judges, state legislators and several community leaders attended his funeral. Bishop Healy, as he wished, was buried in a simple graveyard rather than in the Portland Cathedral’s vault. Holy Cross College, where his calling for priesthood was rooted, named a building in his honor.
All four of the older Healy brothers (James, Hugh, Patrick, and Sherwood) graduated from Holy Cross. Hugh decided to go into business in New York, but died from an infection contracted in a boating accident at age 21. Patrick and Sherwood each entered the priesthood.
Patrick Francis Healy became a Jesuit, earned a PhDin Paris, and is now considered the first African American to have gained the degree. He was named a dean at Georgetown University in 1866. At the age of 39, in 1874, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States.
Alexander Sherwood Healy was also ordained as a priest, and earned his doctorate degree at the Sulpician Academy in Paris, where he became an expert in canon lawn and Gregorian chant. After working with his brother in Boston, he was appointed director of the Catholic seminary in Troy, New York, and rector of the Cathedral in Boston. His career was cut short by his death at age 39.
Younger brother Michael Augustine Healy preferred a more adventuresome life. He left the school at the age of 16 to go to sea. In England, he signed aboard the East Indian clipper as a cabin boy in 1854 and quickly became an expert seaman, rising to an officer. In 1864, Michael Healy returned to his family in Boston. He applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service and was accepted as a Third Lieutenant, his commission being signed by President Lincoln. In 1880, Healy became the first African American to be assigned command of a US government ship. During the last two decades of the 19th century, Captain Healy was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast Alaska Territory.
The three Healy daughters became nuns, although Martha, the first, soon left the order and moved to Boston, where her brothers were. She married an Irish immigrant and they had one son. Josephine Healy joined the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph in Canada.
Eliza Healy (1846–1918) joined the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. After teaching for years at Catholic schools in Quebec and Ontario, in 1903 she was appointed the first African-American Mother Superior at a Catholic convent and school, the Villa, in St. Albans, Vermont.
Eugene Healy (1848-?), the youngest son, struggled in his life and did not achieve as much as his siblings.