James Augustine Healy was born April 6, 1830 on a cotton planation near the town Macon in Jones County, Georgia, to Michael and Mary Eliza Healy. Michael Healy was a former Irish soldier who emigrated to America by way of Canada after the war of 1812, and became a planter. In 1829, Michael fell in love with Mary Eliza, a mixed-race domestic slave, and purchased her from her former owner, Sam Griswold. Georgia's laws at the time prohibited interracial marriages, but the two are believed to have been married by a traveling preacher, and carried out their family life as husband and wife.
Considered both illegitimate and slaves at birth under the law, James and his siblings were forbidden from attending school in their home state. Wanting their children to be educated, the Healys sent James and his brothers Hugh and Patrick to Quaker schools in the north, first in Flushing, New York, then in Burlington, where they studied in the 1840's under the instruction of Adeline Glover. Despite the Quaker emphasis on equality, the boys met with some discrimination throughout their school years, based not only on their race, but also on their Irish heritage and the fact that their father owned slaves - something local Quakers found unconscionable.
In the mid-1840s, Michael Healy transferred the boys to the newly-founded Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where they excelled academically. James and Hugh were in the first graduating class of 1849, of which James was Valedictorian; Patrick graduated the next year. Their younger brothers, Sherwood and Michael, also attended Holy Cross. Continuing his religious education, James entered the Sulpican Seminary in Montreal to train for the the priesthood. In 1852, he transferred to the Sulpican Seminary in Paris, France, working toward a doctorate and a career as a seminary professor. During this period, he felt a calling to serve as a pastor, and in 1854 was ordained at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, becoming the first African-American to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
Returning to the United States, Father James Healy served as an assistant priest in Boston for several years. At the time, tension existed between black and Irish Catholics, since both groups were forced to compete with each other for menial jobs. To make matters worse, New England residents unhappy with a flood of Irish Catholic immigrants were waging a hate campaign against Catholics, going so far as to tar and feather a priest in Maine! Healy managed to win respect, though, and lobbied to repeal anti-Catholic laws at the state level.
In 1866, he became pastor of Saint James' Church in South Boston, one of the largest churches in the diocese, and in 1875, he was named Bishop of Portland, Maine. At the time of his arrival, most Catholics in Maine were either Irish, French Canadian or Indian, and anti-Catholic sentiments were so strong that some churches were burned by Protestants. Even some Irish Catholics were shocked to have a black Bishop. Once again, Healy won over his doubters, traveling some 30,000 miles to visit parishoners throughout Maine in his first summer as Bishop.
In the twenty-five years he served as Bishop, Healy established 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools throughout Maine, and lobbied for sovereignty for Indian tribes and an end to child labor. Known for his work among the poor, he refused to live in the Bishop's mansion, living instead at the Cathedral rectory, and declined to be buried in the Cathedral vault with the other Bishops, opting instead to be buried in South Portland's Calvary Cemetary under a Celtic cross headstone. Shortly before his death in 1900, he was appointed Assistant to the Royal Throne, a high honor within the Roman Catholic Church.
Having spent most of his formative years away from his mother's family and the slaves on his father's farm, he never became involved in discussions of racial issues. Asked to attend an African-American Catholic Conference, he declined, writing, "We are of that Church where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all."