Monday, January 12, 2009

The "Black" Catholic Priest That Baptized President John Tyler's Wife (among other things)

Obama is not the first "Black" President that will live in D.C. Well the first was not President of the United States but of Georgetown which is of the Jesuit University. The fact is that this occurred in 1874. As you can tell from the picture and the story he was really Bi Racial (LIKE OBAMA) but however unlike Obama could very pass for white and did.

The Deacon Bench has the very interesting story at Washington's OTHER African-American president -- and he was Catholic .

This appears to be a fascinating piece of history.

In 1874, he was appointed president. Over the next eight years, Healy turned Georgetown into a national university by modernizing the curriculum, expanding the law and medical schools, fundraising drives, creating an alumni association, and major construction projects. After Georgetown he served in various parishes until his death. Of his three brothers, one became a bishop, another was rector of Boston’s cathedral, and a third a Coast Guard captain; two sisters entered religious life. The Healys were an impressive family, but few knew that their mother was African-American and had been a slave on their father’s plantation. In fact, their ancestry didn’t become public knowledge until the 1950’s. Professor James O’Toole at Boston College has written a fascinating book about the family titled Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family, 1820-1920. One final tidbit is worth noting. In 1872, Father Healy received former First Lady (and ex-slaveholder) Julia Gardner Tyler (1820-1889) into the Catholic Church.

Be sure to go to he link he has to read the whole story. That is interesting on many levels. On a non Catholic note if Michener's great book Alaska if the Black and indeed Catholic Coast Guard Captain is based loosely on the above mentioned brother. I will have to go back and read those parts again.

Now his brother was indeed the Nation first black (or Creole) Bishop in the United States way back in 1875. As you can see though there was no chance he could pass for pure "white".

So were all these powerful Catholics and the fact they were siblings one huge secret and the Catholic Hierarchy know it? That is pretty fascinating.

Update two reviews of the book this post is partly based on shed some light on this via Amazon

first learned of the Healy family in January 1959, when I paged through the new 12 month Catholic calendar. Each month was devoted to a 19th century Catholic who made a significant contribution to American Catholic life. One of the individuals was James Augustine Healy. The short description said that James Healy was the first American negro (the acceptable for Blacks or African Americans in 1959) to be ordained a priest; and that he later became Bishop of Portland Maine (certainly another first), where he provided distinguished leadership in pastoral work, education, social advocacy, and public welfare.

The commentary went on to report that James was born in Georgia to an Irish-born white father and a black slave woman. Nothing was mentioned of any siblings, the names of his parents, or how he got from Georgia to Maine. My immediate reaction was a mild (to myself) comment, "Isn't that interesting." Over the years I learned more bits and pieces about the famous Irish-American Healy family --- and what a family! .

I learned that two other Healy brothers were prominent American priests --- the Jesuit, Patrick Francis Healy, being the one time president of Georgetown University; and Alexander Sherwood Healy, a canon law expert in the diocese of Boston. From James Michner's Alaska, I learned that that another Healy sibling, Michael Healy, was a famous captain of the BEAR, a US Coast Guard in vessel operating in the Alaskan waters. And later still I learned that two Healy sisters became nuns with one of them attaining the rank of mother Superior in her community.

But then I learned so much more from Passing for White: Race, Religion, and The Healy Family, 1820-1920 by James M. O'Toole. Indeed the founder of this family was Michael Morris Healy, born in Ireland (Galway or Roscommon) in 1796.

Sometime in the early 1800s he acquired land near present day Macon Georgia, and became a cotton plantation owner. And yes he acquired slaves to work the plantation, including one Eliza Clark. Unlike other slave owners, Michael did not have a wife in the big house and a concubine in the slave quarters. Laws during the slavery era prohibited interracial marriages, but Michael and Eliza carried out their family life as husband and wife until their death in 1850 (Eliza's death preceded Michael's by about three months.)

Their union produced nine children who survived to adulthood. (One died in infancy) The Healy children were never treated as slaves, but under contemporary Georgia law, they were indeed slaves. Why? A person's slave-status was determined from the status of the mother. Knowing this, Michael Healy began to send children North for their schooling. James was first to move North, followed by brothers Sherwood, Patrick, Hugh (another brother), Michael, and sister Martha Ann. Later, after the death of the parents in 1870 the younger children Amanda Josephine, Eliza Dunamore, and Eugene moved North -- with Hugh's able assistance.

All this was happening when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land. Technically all the Healys were runaway slaves subject to apprehension and the law's subsequent Draconian consequences. Hugh was the only one of the Healy siblings to ever return to Georgia. By returning in 1851 to retrieve three youngest siblings he placed himself at great personal risk. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, a Black person living north of the Maxon Dixon line was at great personal risk.

But the risk of a Black person, technically a runaway, returning to Macon Georgia! O'Toole goes on to chronicle the many achievements and to a lesser extent the disappointments of the Healy clan. I won't list them in this review. Read them for yourself. But the title, PASSING FOR WHITE give us a hint of the Healys's lives in 19th century Catholic America. According to O'Toole the Healys did not deny or hide their black origin, many know of it. But the Healys managed to redefine themselves Irish-Catholic Americans. But that's enough from me. O'Toole's Passing for White .. Is a fascinating, well written, and well-researched (34 pages of end notes and a 17 page Bibliography) work. I don't want to give away the entire book's content. Learn for yourself about this distinguished Irish-American and African-American family.

and another review

The large, extremely intelligent, and admirable Healy family is treated badly by an author who doubts the sincerity of vocations and religion in general. Far from "passing for white," the Healy brothers suffered double persecution; by birth they were despised as both Irish and African, and by religion they were despised as Catholic in a virulantly anti-Catholic America. They were illegitimate according to American laws, though they were legitimate in a Europe that accepted the interracial marriage of their parents. Patrick Healy became a Jesuit not to "pass for white," but out of love. He became President of Georgetown University. James and Sherwood Healy became secular priests, and James died Bishop of Portland, Maine. This author is as narrow-minded as 19th c. "Know Nothing" Nativists in his attitude towards truly good people.

So we are led to believe by these reviews that this was not exactly a great secret. If this is true the fact that Healy was President of major University in a very Southern City is something else for the time

Update II- The Wiki Page on this man is very informative and indeed indicates that this was no secret at all.

Update III- The author of the beforementioned book had a piece that sheds some light

As to Father Healy of Georgetown he presents evidence of why perhaps his backgorund was not know. I do agree with one of the other reviewers at that his tone that these boys and sisters I guess became Catholics so they could succeed in Life is a big assumption. I am curious and I still have a hard time seeing how one keeps all this a big secret since three of the Healy brothers were so prominent. I intend to get his book


Trip C. said...

Interesting historical article. Thanks for posting it!

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