Race, identity and a famous Catholic family - Catholic Courier

Race, identity and a famous Catholic family

PASSING FOR WHITE: RACE, RELIGION AND THE HEALY FAMILY, 1820-1920, by James M. O’Toole. University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, Mass., 2004). 304 pp., $19.95 paperback.

“Passing for White” is the story of the Healy family, brothers and sisters born into slavery in Georgia who hid their heritage and became leaders of the 19th-century American Catholic Church.

In the 1950s, when Bessie Cunningham received a letter from a historian seeking information about her grandparents, she was shaken, fearful that the family secret would become public. Even the descendants were only gingerly told that their ancestor, Michael Healy, an Irish immigrant who had settled in Georgia, had never married his “wife,” Eliza, and that this was because they could not legally marry, since she was one of his slaves.

In the 1830s and 1840s, when the Healy children were born, Georgia law required that any child of a slave mother was also a slave for life. Further, Georgia law forbade slave owners to free their slaves, even at the owner’s death, even if they were their own children. Despite the circumstances of their birth, Michael and Eliza’s children rose to prominence in life.

In this lucid, riveting work, James O’Toole, former archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston and currently associate professor of history at Boston College, puts the story in the context of the times. Having been sent North to avoid the possible, indeed almost inevitable, consequences of their birth, the children were taken under the wing of John Bernard Fitzpatrick, auxiliary bishop of Boston.

While their father was merely a nominal Catholic, the children saw the church as a means of escaping their identity as slaves. All eventually chose to be baptized. Of Michael and Eliza’s six sons, one became the Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine; another was the rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston; a third became president of Georgetown University in Washington, while another rose in the ranks of the Coast Guard. Two of their daughters entered religious life, while the third married a white man and lived a respectable suburban life. The Healy family’s crossing of the color line was so complete that two of the lighter-skinned children were identified on their death certificates as white.

O’Toole does not simply tell the story of the family; he uses the story as a way to examine the role of race in American society. The children made a conscious effort to dissociate themselves from “the negros.” While they never actually denied their origins, they did not do anything to disavow people’s assumptions, given their name and their close association with Boston, that they were anything other than Irish Catholics. Their father was an Irish immigrant, after all, and their mother’s ethnic background is unknown, but presumably she was partly of European heritage.

O’Toole has a keen eye for the details that help illuminate the story of their “passing.” He notes that when Michael, a captain in the Revenue Cutter Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), was being berated by a geologist who was on board, he was cursed as an Irishman. Another RCS officer said Healy did not belong in the service of the U.S. government because he was Catholic. Twice Michael was brought to trial, but at no time during either one was his race ever mentioned.

The church became the vehicle through which they entered mainstream American society, despite their origins. Even members of the hierarchy conspired to help them. Under the canon law of the time, illegitimate children could not be ordained, and the permission of the bishop of his place of birth was needed if a man was to be ordained for a different diocese. Bishop Fitzpatrick of Boston simply overlooked these potential impediments. Sherwood, the cathedral rector, had no problems as pastor of an Irish congregation, who saw him simply as “priest” and not as black or white. Educated in seminaries in Europe, Sherwood was one of the most highly educated priests of his day, despite that fact that the laws in some parts of the United States would have forbidden that he even be taught to read and write.

I cannot begin to indicate the importance of this work for what it tells us about the Catholic Church in 19th-century America or about race relations. O’Toole is to be commended for a fine, well-balanced work that examines an issue that the church wrestles with even today. A genealogical chart would have been a helpful addition to this volume.

Father Curley teaches at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, N.J.

Copyright (c) 2004 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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