Visiting Washington, D.C., with my family in the summer of 2000, I felt the call to make two gravesite pilgrimages. The first was that of the slain Kennedy bothers, John Fitzgerald and Robert Francis, at the National Cemetery in Arlington. The other was that of Patrick Francis Healy, S.J., at the Jesuit cemetery on the campus of Georgetown University.
For me and my family, both of these side trips were fairly obvious choices. As someone who grew up in a home with framed photos of both JFK and RFK next to that of the pope, it would have been a stain on my DNA to forego a journey to Arlington. And since there are a lot of Irish names more popular and renowned than that of Heal(e)y – one of them being Kennedy – I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the grave of one of the famous, at least to those who know a bit of history of the Catholic Church in America, Healy brothers.
As I stood at the grave of the 28th President of the oldest Jesuit university in America, almost literally in the shadow of Healy Hall, Georgetown’s main building, I could not help thinking of how vastly different were the Kennedy and Healy families. The nine Kennedy children were born into the upper echelon of Boston Catholic society, and because of their accomplishments they helped the Kennedy name to become the closest thing there is to American royalty.
On the other hand, Patrick Healy and his nine siblings were the children of an Irish immigrant father and a Black slave mother. Because of the laws still in force in their home state of Georgia the Healy children were, as the offspring of a slave mother, legally slaves themselves.
The distance between the starting points of the Kennedy and Healy children could not have been greater, and the geographical and cultural gap between Hyannis Port and Macon, Georgia, only sheds further light on that distance. Yet, Patrick and his siblings achieved ecclesiastical heights that rival the political achievements of the wealthy and well-connected Kennedys.
Patrick’s older brother John was the first valedictorian of the newly opened Jesuit College of the Holy Cross. He went on to study in Montreal and Paris on his way to being ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Notre Dame on June 10, 1854. This first African American to become a Catholic priest came back to Boston to work for the Archbishop who later appointed him as pastor of St. James Church, the largest parish in the archdiocese. So impressed was Pope Pius IX with his work on behalf of the rights of the Church as well as the welfare of the Irish immigrant community, that he appointed James as Bishop of Portland, Maine. It almost goes without saying that this made him the first African American bishop.
Not to be outdone by his elder sibling, Patrick graduated from Holy Cross at the age of 16 and then joined the Jesuits. After teaching philosophy and theology at Georgetown he was sent to Rome to study further. He left Rome in order to attend the legendary Catholic University of Louvain, and thus it was in Belgium that he was ordained as the first African American Jesuit priest.
His studies at Louvain led him to become fluent in Latin, French, Italian and German, and his work in the field of philosophy earned him, on July 26, 1865, the first Ph.D. to be awarded to an African American. He then went back to Georgetown to begin his tenure as the head of the Department of Philosophy. Rising through the ranks in both the Jesuit community and the school, he eventually assumed the role of president, being officially installed on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, July 31, 1874. He thus became the first Black president of a Jesuit school, and the first to be made the head of any predominantly white university in the country.
Of the other eight children of Michael and Eliza Healy, six lived to adulthood, and included another priest and two religious sisters. Alexander was ordained in Paris, where he also earned a Ph.D. as well as a doctorate in Canon Law. An expert in Gregorian chant, he was appointed first as the head of a seminary in New York State and then as the rector of the Cathedral in Boston.
Eliza Healy and Josephine Healy joined the Congregation of Notre Dame and the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, respectively. Eliza, the oldest of the three Healy daughters, was one of the first African American women to be named the Mother Superior of a religious community, and she held that post in both Canada and the United States.
This incredible family reminds us of the truly important, yet generally unknown and vastly underappreciated, role that Catholics of African heritage have played in our Church. The Healys and so many others deserve their place beside the Kennedys, and one can only hope that a day will come when it is common for their photos to adorn the walls of proud Catholic families throughout the land.