How many families have you met in which there were nine children, of which three became priests (one a bishop) and three became nuns? And another son became a renowned ship captain guarding the coasts of American territory in Alaska. Must have been an Irish family. Right? And how about if the father was Irish born and the mother a mulatto slave? Never heard of such a thing, you'd say. Well, meet the Healy family of Georgia.

Michael Morris Healy immigrated to the US from County Roscommon, Ireland in 1818. Within a few short years he became the owner of 1,500 acres of fertile land near Macon, Georgia. He also accumulated 49 slaves to farm the cotton on his plantation. Among them was one, Mary Eliza Clark (sometimes referred to as Smith). She was to become his common-law wife and the mother of his nine children. In Georgia at that time, marriage between whites and blacks was not only illegal but any children of such a union would be considered to be slaves. So mother and children of the Healy family were all legally slaves. This presented a danger and a dilemma to Michael Healy. In such a society the children could not be educated in white-only schools and there were no schools for slave children. So Michael designed a plan to send all his children to the North where slavery did not exist and where they could get a quality education. 

James Healy was only seven years old in 1837 when his father took him north to a Quaker school in Flushing, New York. He and his brothers, Hugh and Patrick, remained there a year or two and later transferred to another Quaker school in Burlington, New Jersey. A chance meeting between the elder, Michael Healy and Catholic Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick on board a ship traveling from New York to Boston, was to change the direction and the fate of the Healy children for the rest of their lives. Healy told the bishop about his family and Bishop Fitzpatrick recommended that the Healy boys be enrolled in the newly founded College of the Holy Cross run by the Jesuits in Worcester, Massachusetts. This college initially offered even elementary school grades and so in 1844, James 14, Hugh 12, Patrick 10, and Sherwood 8,  went to Massachusetts where they were baptized by the Jesuits of Holy Cross and began their studies at the college. Young Michael Healy followed his brothers to Holy Cross in 1849.

The four eldest Healy boys were high academic achievers. In 1849 James was the valedictorian of the first graduating class at Holy Cross. He ranked academically at the top of his class and Hugh came out fourth. Patrick ranked first in his class and Sherwood was second in his. The fact that the boys did so well in their studies undoubtedly compensated in some way for the fact that they were mixed-race children in an all-white society. Also their sponsorship by Bishop Fitzpatrick, who was by now head of the Boston diocese, went a long way toward gaining acceptance for them in what could be a clearly intolerant society. Others around them could fairly easily discern that they had Negro blood. In most of them it was evident to a greater or lesser degree. But Bishop Fitzpatrick saw their potential and he began grooming them for a higher calling.

In May 1850, their mother Eliza died unexpectedly. And their father Michael died only four months later. There were still three minor children at home so their brother Hugh, only 18 years old, traveled down to Georgia (they were still all considered slaves and could have been picked up as runaways) and clandestinely brought his siblings north to safety in Boston.

James expressed interest in becoming a priest so Bishop Fitzpatrick sent him to seminaries in Montreal and Paris. In 1854, James Healy was ordained in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. On his return, the bishop now faced a dilemma: whether to place him in a position where he would be highly visible and possibly rejected because of his race, or to send him to an obscure location where he might be less visible. Bishop Fitzpatrick took a bold step making Healy his own secretary and chancellor of the Boston diocese. And because of Healy's great interest in and compassion for the poor and the immigrant, of which the vast majority of Catholic Boston was, he was positively received by most people. In 1866 James Healy became pastor of S. James' Church, then the largest parish in Boston. At St. James he was known to often visit the homes of poor Irish immigrants with baskets of food.

In 1875 James was ordained bishop of the diocese of Portland, Maine, which at that time covered the territory of Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to his ordination, a priest of that diocese wrote to the Vatican complaining that the people would never accept a mulatto to be their bishop. The writer never received a response.

Bishop Healy headed the Portland, Maine diocese for 25 years. Under his leadership the diocese expanded greatly, opening 60 new churches, 68 missions and 18 convents and schools. He celebrated his Silver Jubilee as bishop on June 29, 1900 and five weeks later he died. As he had requested, he was buried not in a bishops vault, but in a simple coffin in Calvary Cemetery. A Celtic cross, placed by his own parishioners, marks his grave.In 1875 he was ordained bishop of the diocese of Portland, Maine, which at that time covered the territory of Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to his ordination, a priest of that diocese wrote to the Vatican complaining that the people would never accept a mulatto to be their bishop. The writer never received a response.

Hugh Healy was the second eldest son. Although he too did very well at Holy Cross, he was not interested in the priesthood as was his brother James. He had a more entrepreneurial spirit. He was working in the hardware business when he was involved in boating accident. A resulting infection was the cause of his death at the young age of just 21 years. While we don't know a lot about him, we can speculate that he truly had a daring spirit to have gone to Georgia to rescue his two little sisters and brother after their parents deaths. The fact that they were still all legally slaves and would be at great risk on the journey back north, and that he himself was only 18 years old, is almost beyond imagination. How he brought them or arranged to have them transported north is something that history has not recorded. 

Patrick Healy was the next in line. From all reports he had almost no discernible features from his mother's mulatto heritage. But he knew who he was and always carried a certain sensitivity within himself. He was received into the Jesuit order and after two years he was sent back to Holy Cross in Worcester for his internship to teach. Because the students knew who his brothers were, they passed racially insensitive remarks at times “which wound my very heart” he wrote to Fr. Fenwick, an old mentor.

Patrick progressed and went on to study at Louvain in Belgium where he earned his doctorate degree. He was ordained a priest in September 1866 and returned to the US to teach at Georgetown University. The Jesuits were concerned that because of his racial background he might not be accepted by the general student body comprised of many southerners. For that reason, at first he was assigned to teaching just Jesuit scholastics. After a year or two he became a philosophy professor teaching the general student population and in 1874, at 39 years of age, he was named the 29th president of Georgetown University. 

In spite of his great talents and accomplishments, Patrick still sometimes experienced offensive moments because of his racial background from those who knew who he was. In his role as university president he traveled extensively often staying in Jesuit houses. Once an old Jesuit remarked that some houses would not welcome him because no one would be willing to sleep again in the bed he had occupied. On the other side of the coin, one of his Georgetown students, the son of a Confederate general, who did not recognize Patrick's racial background, said of him that he was “a finished scholar, a remarkable linguist, and the clearest thinker and expounder of his thoughts that I have ever met.” 

Alexander Sherwood Healy (always called Sherwood) was the fourth son. Bishop Fitzpatrick was certainly a strong advocate for the Healy brothers. But when the time came to advocate for Sherwood, the bishop saw it more difficult because of his more pronounced Negro features and because of the anti-Negro sentiment that was growing in Boston society.

Like his brother James, Sherwood studied at the seminaries in Montreal and Paris and was ordained in Notre Dame in 1858. But when the time came for his return to the US, Bishop Fitzpatrick sensed Sherwood's reticence. The debate over slavery in the US was reaching a crescendo just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. “He feels an unwillingness for reasons which I cannot condemn, to return to this country” Fitzpatrick told a papal official. And so Sherwood to went to Rome for advanced studies.
A year later there was an opening for the position of rector of the new North American College in Rome, and again Fitzpatrick hesitated, writing in a letter that it was “useless to recommend him” because “he has African blood and it shows distinctly in his exterior” fearing that because of his race, the seminary students might not respect him. Had Bishop Fitzpatrick not hesitated, Sherwood might have become the first rector of the North American College in Rome. Instead he returned to the US with his doctorate degree in Canon Law and an expertise in Gregorian chant.
In his early years back in Boston, Sherwood was chaplain to the Angel Guardian home and worked with his brother James who was chancellor of the Boston diocese. His expertise in church law and church music certainly came into play in this assignment. By 1870 he had been appointed rector of the new cathedral of the Holy Cross which was still under construction. Later he was appointed professor of Moral Theology and director of student discipline at St. Joseph's Provincial Seminary in Troy, New York. Sherwood's career in the priesthood was cut short by his death in 1875 at the age of 39 years.

Michael Healy was the rebellious brother. In 1849 he was enrolled at Holy Cross in Worcester like his older brothers before him. But it became evident early on that the studious life didn't suit him. In 1854 he was sent off to the seminary in France but lasted only a short time there. He ran away to England and became a merchant seaman. The seafarers life seemed to be a better fit. He continued working on the ships until he returned to the US in 1863 with the intention of joining the Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor of today's US Coast Guard. Because of his seafaring experience, a year later he became a commissioned officer (his commission was signed by President Abraham Lincoln) and was soon given command of a ship patrolling the waters around the newly acquired Alaskan territory.

Because Michael's complexion did not reveal his mother's mulatto heritage, he easily passed for white. In 1865 he married Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and they had one son. He was accepted into white society apparently as an Irish-American with no hint of his African bloodline. According to Boston College professor, James M. O'Toole, Michael Healy had so conscientized himself as white that he referred to white settlers in Alaska as “our people”. This same identity was apparently passed on to his son who while accompanying his father on an Alaskan patrol in 1883, scratched his name onto a rock on an island off the coast. He wrote into his diary that he was the first “white boy” to do so.

Michael Healy's wild side never left him even in the Revenue Cutter Service. He had a reputation as a highly skilled seaman and had a knack for contending with wild people and the even wilder weather of what was then the still unexplored Alaskan coast. He engineered several successful Arctic whaling ship rescues in the most challenging weather conditions. Ice was one of the most treacherous factors that a ship captain had to face in these waters and Healy became adept at dealing with it. In addition, effectively dealing with some of the most unsavory characters in a part of the world as yet somewhat uncivilized, “Hell-Roaring Mike” as he was known, became the symbol of law and order to his men on the ships and to the population on land. Once in a heated shipboard altercation, a crewman to whom he laid down the law, threw the worst epithet he could at him saying that he was “a God-damned Irishman”.

It was because of his stern and often severe approach that he was once court-marshaled for cruelty to his crew. He was acquitted of this charge but later in 1895 again he was court-marshaled, this time for drunkenness, for gross irresponsibility and “scandalous conduct.” Sidelined for a while, Healy returned to service again as a captain after the Alaskan gold rush. He retired in 1903 and died a year later.

In January 2012 when the Alaskan town of Nome on the Bering Strait was running low on fuel oil because of an early ice floe blocking the coast, the US Coast Guard Cutter Michael A. Healy opened the way through 300 miles of packed ice up to five feet deep for a Russian tanker to deliver the needed oil to the town. The legacy of Hell-Roaring Mike still lives!

US Coast Guard Cutter Healy (left) opening the way for Russian tanker Renda

Of the remaining four Healy children, three girls and one boy, we know much less than about the older boys. The girls were said to look more like their mother but there are no surviving photographs to verify that. On the recommendation of Bishop Fitzpatrick, the three girls went to school at the Congregation of Notre Dame convent in Montreal. And after they graduated all three wanted to be nuns.  

Martha was the oldest and she entered the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1851. She stayed only a short while and left religious life to return to Boston. She eventually married Jeremiah Cashman, an upwardly mobile Irishman.

Amanda Josephine joined the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph in Canada. She died at the young age of 39 years.

Like her older sister Martha, Eliza Dunamore joined the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. Known as Sister Mary Magdalene, she taught for a number of years in Quebec and Ontario. In 1903 she was appointed Superior of the Villa Barlow convent and school in St. Albans, Vermont. This was a school for the daughters of the New England upper crust society. As headmistress she pulled the school out of debt and reorganized the faculty and curriculum. After 15 years there, Sister Mary Magdalene was transferred to the College of Notre Dame in Staten Island, New York again as community superior. She died there in 1918 from cancer.

All that is known about Eugene, the youngest Healy child, was that he did not have success in life. Never really establishing himself, he went from one job to another and occasionally landed in jail.

A Postscript

Reading through the material on the history of the Healy family, it is to be noted that while they surely knew of their African American roots, they all lived and worked in a basically all-white society. None of them ever expressed interest in the plight of the African slave in the 19th century United States. And interestingly too, while they undoubtedly knew of their father's Irish heritage, they didn't overtly identify with being Irish either. They immersed themselves completely into the society to which fate had delivered them, even with their personal hesitancy and fears. Several suffered the injury of insults because of their racial background, but none of them ever seemed to fight back. I am sure that many reasons may be put forth to explain why this happened, but because we can never know what they felt and thought on the inside, the explanation for their outward behaviors in this context will remain a mystery.

In his book, Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, Professor James M. O'Toole points out that while Eliza Healy and her children were legally classified as slaves, they were never treated as such. Of course they had to be careful not to cross swords with the legal authorities who could make trouble for them because of their status. But the fact that Michael Healy thought of Eliza as his “trusty woman …. the mother of my children” and that he lived with her as a husband with his wife, and that he cared for the welfare of his children and their educatiron, made a great difference. In addition, the fact that he had the financial means to do so, also greatly enhanced their chances for a better life.

According to O'Toole, the Healy children became white at a time when racial issues were reaching an all-time high in the ante-bellum years. And they were able to do so not only because their skin complexions were not very dark, but because they had the support and patronage of Bishop Fitzpatrick and the Holy Cross Jesuits. The church itself had not been a bastion of anti-slavery up to that point. In fact the views and practices of many church communities were very pro-slavery. But thanks to the particular church people they met and who interceded for them, and also because of their own intelligence which was recognized by the church, they were able to pass for white.

This article first appeared in my Footnotes to Irish History in the Americas  blog:  http://irishamericanfootnotes.blogspot.com/2012/04/healys-extraordi...

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Tags: Americas, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day, United States

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