Part 2: African-American Leaders in the Catholic Church – Patrick Healy, S.J.

Feb 20, 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. .

Bishop James Healey’s brother Patrick was born in 1834. He, too, was sent north to study – first at the Quaker school on Long Island, in Flushing, New York and subsequently at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1850 at the age of 16.

Patrick entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) after graduation – the first Black American Jesuit. Patrick identified as white. His African American heritage was known to the Jesuits, but not widely acknowledged.

Patrick began graduate studies at Georgetown University and was sent to Rome to continue his studies. He transferred to Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris and completed his studies at the Catholic University of Louvain where he became the first African American to earn a PhD.

Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J. returned to Georgetown as the Chair of the Philosophy department. He was considered for the presidency of Georgetown, but the Jesuit superiors in Rome appointed Rev. John Early, S.J. as president due to Patrick’s race.

When Fr. Early became ill, Patrick increasingly took on the duties of president of Georgetown. When Early died suddenly, Patrick was named acting president by the board of directors. He was later inaugurated as president of Georgetown in 1874.

Patrick Healy, S.J. sought to modernize Georgetown University – overseeing the establishment of a new “commercial and scientific school,” reforming the curriculum, and building Healy Hall, the signature building on Georgetown’s campus. By the time of his death in 1910, Patrick was often referred to as the second founder of Georgetown University.

Fr. Brian Conley, S.J.

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