Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Catholic Priest Who Owned His Own Family

"We are neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, but all one in Christ."
-- James Healy, Bishop of Portland

James Augustine Healy has the distinction of being the first valedictorian of Holy Cross College at Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1849.   He was also America's first Catholic priest and bishop of African descent.  

Healy also had the dubious distinction of owning his own family after his father died in 1850.   First, his brother Hugh went to their father's plantation in Georgia, and spirited the younger Healy children out of the state to avoid their enslavement.   James then had to negotiate through a family friend the placement of his father's slaves with sympathetic farmers, Georgia laws making emancipation at the time highly problematic.  The Healy children themselves were in a dangerous predicament due to the passions of that era and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but safe enough in Massachusetts.  Their mother is believed to have died before their father, but her death may have been a ruse to shield her from Georgia law.

Healy's father was an Irish immigrant who married one of his slaves, the beautiful and smart Eliza Mary. He'd been attracted to Georgia by the expanding cotton economy and the opportunity to pioneer the Georgia frontier.  Michael and Eliza's children found their way to Massachusetts by another coincidence of immigration and economic expansion.

Tobias Boland was a young Irishman who learned canal building in England and immigrated to America to work on the Erie Canal.  He became a successful contractor who built the Blackstone Canal connecting Worcester and Providence, Rhode Island, and later the Boston and Worcester and other railroads.  Influenced by his Catholic faith and his first and second wives, Boland underwrote the founding of Holy Cross College at Worcester.   Worcester became the first site for a Catholic college in New England primarily to avoid Boston where anti-Catholic sentiment, inflamed by the preaching of Lyman Beecher, led to the burning of the Ursuline Convent in 1834.   When planter Michael Morris Healy, looking for a school for his children whose schooling was prohibited by Georgia law, encountered some Jesuits in his travels, they recommended the new school at Worcester.   James Healy would spend his first Christmas in New England, and many others, with the Boland family.

James Healy was joined in Worcester by his brother Patrick who became a Jesuit priest and a famous president of Georgetown University.   Younger brother Michael followed them to Worcester, but chose a vocation at sea, not with the church.  He was commissioned an officer in the Revenue Cutter Service by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and had a heroically famous career in Alaska, celebrated by James Michener in an historical novel of the same name, his battles with poachers an inspiration for Jack London's The Sea Wolf.

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The challenge for the Healys was avoiding trouble because of their mother's race.   They had to avoid the specter of their own enslavement during the Fugitive Slave Law years, especially of their young brothers and sisters still living on the Georgia plantation when their father died.  Even though Sherwood and Bishop James Healy's mixed heritage was widely known in Maine, among America's black community and while they held prominent clerical positions in Boston before and after the Civil War,  the Healy's and the Society of Jesus managed to keep this from being an issue, especially while Patrick was president at Georgetown.  Michael Healy's heritage haunted him at Holy Cross and then while commanding the Revenue Cutter Bear in Alaskan waters.