The Faces of the African American National Biography
Photograph courtesy of Holy Cross Special Collections.
James Augustine Healy was born in Jones County, Georgia, the son of a planter named Michael Morris Healy and his slave Eliza Clark. He grew up on his father's 1,600-acre plantation before leaving to attend the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Influenced by the Jesuits' emphasis on education and faith, Healy felt a spiritual call and in 1854 became the first African American to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As the pastor of the largest Catholic congregation in Boston, Healy feared his background as a southerner of African descent would be unacceptable to the largely Irish parishioners, but his gifts as a teacher, leader, and spiritual guide helped him overcome prejudice throughout his life. Appointed the second bishop of Portland, Maine, by Pope Pius IX in 1875, over the course of his career Healy oversaw the founding of sixty parishes, eighteen schools, and sixty-eight charitable institutions within his diocese.