CHICAGO – More than a year after some African-Americans scrutinized the blackness of the nation’s first black president, America’s Catholics are now wrestling with the same questions to determine who was the nation’s first black priest.

The debate emerges as the Archdiocese of Chicago seeks sainthood for the Rev. Augustus Tolton, long hailed in Chicago as the first African-American clergyman to serve in the U.S. Catholic Church.

A rival for the title is Bishop James Augustine Healy, who was ordained in 1854, the year Tolton was born, and who for a time served as bishop in Portland, Maine. But Healy, the son of an Irish-American landowner and a mixed-race slave, was light-skinned enough to pass as a white man. And in many cases, he did.

Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, the prelate leading the charge for Tolton’s sainthood, argues that Tolton’s story reflects the authentic African-American experience of overcoming racial discrimination to pursue a calling.

“Tolton is being proposed (for sainthood) because his ministry as a priest and a young lad trying to go to school was plagued by racial apartheid in this country,” Perry said. “He suffered a great deal. In the midst of that suffering, he remained steadfast. He remained endeared to the Catholic faith. The Healy family never shows up in the African-American saga.”

Still, Healy is championed as an African-American hero and history-maker in the Archdiocese of Boston.


“I really think he needs to be recognized, because even if he did not see himself as African-American, his experience of having a mother who was African-American shaped him,” said Lorna DesRoses, coordinator in the Boston Archdiocese’s office of outreach and cultural diversity.

Tolton’s rise to prominence began with his family’s escape from slavery as the Civil War began. Baptized before crossing the Mississippi River to Quincy, Ill., the parish priest there encouraged him to join the priesthood. Because no American seminary would admit a black man, Tolton traveled to Rome to be ordained.

The eldest of 10 siblings, Healy was raised Catholic but attended a Quaker school in New York. In 1849, he graduated valedictorian of the first class at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He attended seminary in Canada and was eventually ordained in Paris. But he distanced himself from an African-American identity, declining to participate in African-American organizations.


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