African-American Leaders in the Catholic Church: James Augustine Healy – Bishop of Portland

Feb 19, 2024 | Spiritual Life

As we recognize – and celebrate – Black History Month each February, we take this opportunity to highlight the contributions of African-American leaders in the Catholic Church.

First proposed at Kent State University in 1969 and celebrated there in 1970, Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Educational institutions and communities throughout the US “honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans throughout our history” (Gerald Ford, 1976).

Black Americans have been leaders in the US Catholic Church since the middle of the 19th Century.

James Healy was born into slavery in 1830. His father, Michael, owned a plantation in Georgia and his mother, Eliza, was a slave.  They had 10 children together – James was the oldest.

Michael wanted his children to have an education, so he brought them north. After coming north, James and his brothers would never see their mother again.

James began his schooling at a Quaker school on Long Island (New York), but experienced discrimination there, due to both his Irish Catholic and African heritage. Michael met Bishop John Fitzpatrick, the Bishop of Boston who urged Michael to enroll his children at the recently established College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He and his brothers did well at Holy Cross and James graduated as the valedictorian of the first graduating class in 1849. James began his seminary training in Montreal and then in Paris, France at Sulpician Seminaries. He was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1854.

Father Healy was concerned about his return to Boston given due to the discrimination against Catholics, Irish immigrants, and African Americans at the time. Bishop Fitzpatrick and others knew of Fr. Healy’s African American Heritage. Barbara Miles, archivist of the Diocese of Portland, Maine comments, “He never proclaimed his racial identity. He was very quiet. He didn’t deny being African American, but he didn’t publicize it either. On his return to Boston, Father Healy established a house for homeless boys and later became Bishop Fitzpatrick’s personal secretary. He also served as chancellor and rector of the cathedral. Father Healy became the pastor of St James Parish, the largest parish in Boston.

In 1875, Pope Pius IX appointed Fr. Healy as the Bishop of Portland, Maine, making him the first African-American bishop in the United States. He served 25 years in Portland – founded 60 new churches, 68 missions, and 18 schools. Bishop Healy died in August 1900 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery in South Portland.

Sources: James Augustine Healy: From slave to scholar to shepherd.

– Fr. Brian Conley, SJ

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