Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Healys: The Many Accomplishments of One Irish African American Family

Bishop James Augustine

By Adrian McGrath

Being Irish Catholic in 19th century America had a great societal disadvantage. There was then a great deal of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. Being an enslaved African American then in the South was obviously a terribly oppressed situation. There was no freedom at all. One family suffered in both conditions, and yet made incredible accomplishments. This was the Healy Family of Georgia. Surprisingly, their story is not well known. Yet it should serve as an inspiration to us all.

Michael Morris Healy was an Irish Catholic immigrant from Roscommon, Ireland. He came to America and became wealthy as a cotton planter in a location near Macon, Georgia. Mary Eliza Smith was Michael's common-law wife. She was a person of mixed White and Black backgrounds; and she had been a slave. There is some uncertainty if she had been freed or remained a slave.

Under the laws of that time, Mary was considered to be Black. She and Michael had several children. They were considered Black under the law; and the children were also considered to be slaves under the law, assuming the mother was enslaved. Georgia law then prohibited education for all Black children, free or enslaved.

It was feared that education could lead to independent thinking and even result in a slave revolt.

Michael, despite the unjust law, intended for his children to be well educated. So, he sent the children to school up North. They were all baptized Catholic.

There were nine children in all, who lived to be adults. Some went to boarding schools run by the Quakers at first, but later went to Catholic schools.

All of the five male children except for one graduated from college. Three of the children continued their educations, going to graduate school in Paris, France at Seminaire Saint Sulpice. They were James, Patrick, and Sherwood Healy. Patrick and Sherwood studied further and attained doctorate level degrees.

Seminaire Saint Sulpice in modern times,
near Paris, France, the school where several
Healy sons studied
Photo from

The three daughters also were well educated in a Catholic convent in Montreal, Canada. One daughter, Martha, however, left the religious order and married an Irish Catholic immigrant and raised a family.

Three of the sons became Catholic priests. The three daughters became Catholic nuns.

Patrick Francis Healy,
a Jesuit priest, later head
of Georgetown College

The fifth son, Michael Augustine Healy, who liked adventure and who did not graduate college, joined the United States Revenue Cutter Service. This was the forerunner of the US Coast Guard. He rose to the rank of Captain and did a lot of his service in the wilds of Alaska.

Michael Augustine Healy became the first African American to take command of a United States ship. Today in his honor the US Coast Guard has a ship called the USCGC Healy. It is an icebreaker and the largest ship in the US Coast Guard.

United States Coast Guard Cutter,
an icebreaker in north Alaska
USCGC Healy aka WAGB-20
This ship was named after the Healy son,
Michael Augustine Healy

James Augustine Healy became the first American bishop who was of African American descent. Patrick Francis Healy became the president of the Jesuit school, Georgetown College which later became Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is also said to be the first American of African descent to earn a PhD. He was a Jesuit priest.

One of the daughters, who was a nun, became a Mother Superior. In Healy style, she became the first Mother Superior of African descent in the USA.

Healy Hall at Georgetown University,
named after the Healy son and Jesuit priest,
Patrick Francis Healy
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In sum the nine children were as follows:

1. James Augustine Healy, became bishop of Portland, Maine

2. Patrick Francis Healy, PhD, became a Jesuit priest and head of Georgetown College, later called Georgetown University

3. Alexander Sherwood Healy, earned a doctorate degree and became a priest

4. Michael Augustine Healy, joined the Revenue Cutter Service, today's US Coast Guard, became a Captain and a USCG cutter is named after him

5. Eliza Healy, became a Catholic nun and the first African American Mother Superior, was stationed in St. Albans, Vermont

6. Hugh Healy, graduated from Holy Cross but died at age 21

7. Martha Healy, entered novitiate but left the nunnery to marry an Irish Catholic immigrant and raise a family

8. Josephine Amanda Healy, became a Catholic nun with the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph

9. Eugene Healy, unkown what became of him, his parents dying when he was only two years old. Reportedly, he lived a sad life.

It is often said that the Healy Family was a "family of firsts," in that they accomplished great things before anyone else.

They left quite an extraordinary legacy.

Michael Augustine Healy, Captain
in the US Revenue Cutter Service
US Coast Guard
Photo from USCG and Wikimedia

Sources and further reading: Wikipedia article on "Healy Family"; The Healys: An Extraordinary Family at; The Healy Family at; Irish America, Window on the Past, The Georgia Healys