WORCESTER, Mass. – On August 5, the College of the Holy Cross will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the death of Bishop James Augustine Healy, a graduate of the class of 1849. He was the first African American to become a Roman Catholic bishop.
James Healy was born on April 6, 1830 on a cotton plantation in Georgia to an Irish immigrant and a mixed-race domestic slave. James and his siblings were sent North to Holy Cross since their “illegitimate lineage” forbade them from attending school in their home state.
James and his brother Hugh were in the first graduating class of 1849, of which James was valedictorian; their brother Patrick graduated the next year. Younger brothers, Sherwood and Michael, also attended Holy Cross. Patrick Healy went on to become the first African American recipient of a Ph.D. Ordained a Jesuit priest, Patrick served as Georgetown University’s president from 1873 to 1881 – the first African American president of a predominantly white university. Holy Cross’ founder, Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, S.J., was a Georgetown alumnus who previously served two terms as the university’s president.
James attended the Sulpican Seminary in Paris, France, and, in 1854, was ordained at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Upon his return to the United States, Fr. James Healy served as an assistant priest and pastor in Boston for several years, earning respect in spite of the existing tensions between blacks and Irish Catholics.
In 1875, he was named bishop of Portland, Maine – the first-ever African American bishop. In the 25 years he served as bishop, Healy established 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools throughout Maine, and lobbied for sovereignty for Native American tribes and an end to child labor.
Known for his work among the poor, he refused to live in the bishop’s mansion, living instead at the Cathedral rectory. Healy declined to be buried in the Cathedral vault with the other bishops, opting instead to be buried in South Portland’s Calvary Cemetery under a Celtic cross headstone. Shortly before his death in 1900, he was appointed assistant to the Royal Throne, a high honor within the Roman Catholic Church.
On discussions of racial issues, Bishop Healy once said, “We are of that Church where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all.”
It was in his honor that Holy Cross established the Bishop Healy Committee in 1979.
The committee works to assist the Admissions Office in recruiting and retaining a diverse population of students at Holy Cross. Their purpose is to “discover and implement means of alumni participation in efforts to foster interracial understanding, interaction and friendship within the Holy Cross community.”
Holy Cross is the oldest Catholic college in New England. Founded in 1843 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the College is a highly selective, four-year, undergraduate liberal arts institution and ranks among the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges.
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