Black Catholic History Month: The First African-American Priest

In recognition of Black Catholic Hisotry Month, we reprise a popular post from 2008.
Originally Published at GeneaBlogie on Tuesday, February 12, 2008.

Who was the first African-American Catholic Priest?

The answer is . . . it depends on who you ask. And sometimes the same person will give two different answers!

The contenders are Father James Healy (1830-1900), ordained 1854; and Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), ordained 1886.

The simple genealogical data would seem conclusive: James Healy was the first African-American priest. But it’s not quite that simple.

The 1830 census of Jones County, Georgia, helps tell part of the story. That census shows a household that consists of a single white man and a number of slaves. Despite the characterization on the census, the slaves are in fact Michael Healy’s wife and children. According to Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, co-authored by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Healy had been an Irish soldier in the British Army who deserted in the War of 1812. He eventually made his way to Georgia where he acquired land and slaves. He began a relationship with a slave named Mary Eliza Smith and had children with her. Some reports claim that Healy and Mary Eliza were married by an itinerant preacher. Such a marriage would have been illegal under Georgia law at the time.

Michael Healy acknowledged his children and was concerned for their welfare and education. He arranged for Mary Eliza and three of their sons, Hugh, Patrick, and James, to be sent north so that the boys could be educated.

The Healy sons were enrolled in a Quaker school in New York State. Sometime later, they transferred to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. James was the valedictorian of the 1849 graduating class. While at Holy Cross, James felt the call to the priesthood.

Blacks were not admitted to American seminaries at the time, so James went first to a Canadian seminary in Montreal and then to the Sulpician seminary in Paris. In 1854 in Paris, he was ordained a priest of the Boston diocese. Healy spent some time as secretary to the bishop and then as an assistant pastor. In 1866, he became pastor of St James Church, the largest parish in Boston.

Father Healy was a strong spokesman for Catholics in what was then a hostile environment. His work at St James led to his being selected as bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875.

Many parishioners apparently did not realize that the light skinned Father Healy was of African descent. He did not particularly make that fact known. For several years, he declined to attend the Congress of Colored Catholics, expressing the view that, “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.”

Father Augustine Tolton was born in 1854, the same year Bishop Healy was ordained. He was born in Ralls County, Missouri, the son of slaves. Some reports say that his father left the family to join the Union Army, but my cursory search found no evidence of that. In any event, during the Civil War, the family escaped slavery and moved to Illinois, a free state. One report claims that the slaveowner, a man named Elliott, actually freed the Tolton family. An extension of that story and likely apochryphal, says that upon being freed, young Augustine was baptized in the waters of Brush Creek, with Mrs. Elliott as his godmother.

The family ended up in Quincy, Illinois. Augustine attended Catholic schools in Quincy and heard the call to Holy Orders. But black men still were not permitted to attend American seminaries. In 1880, he went to Rome to attend seminary. He was ordained in 1886 and returned to the diocese of Alton, Illinois.

Father Tolton became well known in Illinois and was either loved or hated. At some point, he was transferred to Chicago. Some say this move can as the result of the antipathy of a white priest in the diocese.

In Chicago, Father Tolton initially was assigned to a basement church that later became known as St Monica’s. His reputation grew and he did not hesitate to travel and speak to various groups of Catholics. Unlike Bishop Healy, Father Tolton attended and spoke at the 1890 Congress of Colored Catholics.

Father Tolton died of heat stroke in 1897, at the age of 43.

So who is considered the first black priest in America? Some say it can’t be Bishop Healy, because he never “proclaimed” himself black. Less charitable folks say that Healy was “passing.” But by the racial rules in place then and now (although different “rules” now) Bishop Healy is properly considered the first man of African-American ancestry to be ordained a priest. Father Tolton is properly considered to be the first man with two slave parents to be ordained a priest.

[Update:  Donna Pointkouski pointed me to a biography of Father Tolton, From Slave to Priest, which is available on Amazon.com. Later I heard from Sabrina A. Penn, third grand-niece of Father Tolton's.  She's written a book about him called A Place for My Children, which is available at http://www.publishersgraphicsbookstore.com/]

Craig

3 Responses to “Black Catholic History Month: The First African-American Priest”

  • [...] week I wrote about the question of the first black Catholic priest in America.  I said the answer to that question depended upon who you asked.  I now know that the answer to [...]

  • Sabrina says:

    I’ve only learned of Fr. Tolton. I’d heard of Fr. Healy most of my life as being the “first” Black American priest. So I would be inclined to say Fr. Healy is the first because of the timeline, but Fr. Tolton is the first ACKNOWLEDGED Black priest. So both are “firsts” as it were.

  • The first reply is not Pastor Sabrina Penn, Father Augustus Tolton great-grand niece. There are a lot of people using my name don’t believe this comment. I am known as Greenlly or Penn Ink when I post comments or things for now on. I did not learn about the Healy brothers until I was an adult. However, The Healy brothers did not considered themselves as Negro men only the people did. Therefore, Father Augustus Tolton is America’s first Black priest; and the Father of faith for all Black Catholics.
    Peace from Greenlly


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