Earlier this week, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune contacted me to discuss Bishop James Healy, Class of 1849. The context was the announcement by the Archdiocese of Chicago that Father Augustine Tolton (1854-97), an African-American priest of Chicago, had become a candidate for sainthood. It was a pleasant conversation with an intelligent reporter who was trying to get my views regarding primacy: who was the first African-American priest. The context was complicated by a recent discussion at Georgetown about the fact that, for years, they had concealed President Patrick Healy’s (HC Class of 1850) racial background; but then revived it when his identity became an asset at the time of the civil rights movement and afterwards.
It’s an interesting question. My sense is that, in an era of intense racism, the Healys made the best of the situation by passing for white as sons of an Irish immigrant and his common-law wife in Georgia who was a mulatto. Their goal was “to help souls,” as St. Ignatius put it; and, since they could pass for white, they did so and accomplished great things in the vineyard of the Lord.
Father Tolton didn’t have that option. Being visibly black, he had to carry on his work in an atmosphere of hostility to persons of his race. So, was he truly the first? The best answer I could give was: yes and no.
Father Al Foley of the New Orleans Province of Jesuits has written biographies of two of the Healys. Beloved Outcaste profiles James Healy; Dream of an Outcaste covers Patrick. James O’Toole has published an excellent history of the Healy family over several generations under the title Passing for White. They are a remarkable family, deserving of the publicity. And Father Tolton has to have been a remarkable priest. Several biographies are available and I hope to get to one of them before long.