Who was the first African-American Catholic Priest?

The answer is . . . it depends on who you ask and how you ask the question! And sometimes the same person will give two different answers!

First a small personal admission: I don’t think I ever saw a black Catholic priest until I was well into my adulthood. I guess I assumed that there were some somewhere; I just never thought that much about it.

The leading contenders are Father James Healy (1830-1900), ordained 1854; and Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), ordained 1886.

The simple genealogical data would seem conclusive: James Healy was the first African-American priest. But it’s not quite that simple.

The 1830 census of Jones County, Georgia, helps tell part of the story. That census shows a household that consists of a single white man and a number of slaves. Despite the characterization on the census, the slaves are in fact Michael Healy’s wife and children. According to Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, co-authored by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Healy had been an Irish soldier in the British Army who deserted in the War of 1812. He eventually made his way to Georgia where he acquired land and slaves. He began a relationship with a slave named Mary Eliza Smith and had children with her. Some reports claim that Healy and Mary Eliza were married by an itinerant preacher. Such a marriage would have been illegal under Georgia law at the time.

Michael Healy acknowledged his children and was concerned for their welfare and education. He arranged for Mary Eliza and three of their sons, Hugh, Patrick, and James, to be sent north so that the boys could be educated.

The Healy sons were enrolled in a Quaker school in New York State. Sometime later, they transferred to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. James was the valedictorian of the 1849 graduating class. While at Holy Cross, James felt the call to the priesthood.

Bjshop Healy

Bishop James Augustine Healy

Blacks were not admitted to American seminaries at the time, so James went first to a Canadian seminary in Montreal and then to the Sulpician seminary in Paris. In 1854 in Paris, he was ordained a priest of the Boston diocese. Healy spent some time as secretary to the bishop and then as an assistant pastor. In 1866, he became pastor of St James Church, the largest parish in Boston.

Father Healy was a strong spokesman for Catholics in what was then a hostile environment. His work at St James led to his being selected as bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875.

Many parishioners apparently did not realize that the light-skinned Father Healy was of African descent. He did not particularly make that fact known. For several years, he declined to attend the Congress of Colored Catholics, expressing the view that, “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.”

Some African-Americans and others accuse Father Healy of forfeiting his relationship with the black community by not explicitly acknowledging his background.

Father Augustine Tolton was born in 1854, the same year Bishop Healy was ordained. He was born in Ralls County, Missouri, the son of slaves. Some reports say that his father left the family to join the Union Army, but my cursory search found no evidence of that. In any event, during the Civil War, the family escaped slavery and moved to Illinois, a free state. One report claims that the slave owner, a man named Elliott, actually freed the Tolton family. An extension of that story and likely apocryphal, says that upon being freed, young Augustine was baptized in the waters of Brush Creek, with Mrs. Elliott as his godmother.

The family ended up in Quincy, Illinois. Augustine attended Catholic schools in Quincy and heard the call to Holy Orders. But black men still were not permitted to attend American seminaries. In 1880, he went to Rome to attend seminary. He was ordained in 1886 and returned to the diocese of Alton, Illinois.

Father Tolton became well-known in Illinois and was either loved or hated. At some point, he was transferred to Chicago. Some say this move can as the result of the antipathy of a white priest in the diocese.

Fr A. Tolton

In Chicago, Father Tolton initially was assigned to a basement church that later became known as St Monica’s. His reputation grew and he did not hesitate to travel and speak to various groups of Catholics. Unlike Bishop Healy, Father Tolton attended and spoke at the 1890 Congress of Colored Catholics.

Father Tolton died of heat stroke in 1897, at the age of 43.

So who is considered the first black priest in America? Some say it can’t be Bishop Healy, because he never “proclaimed” himself black. Less charitable folks say that Healy was “passing.” But by the racial rules in place then and now (although different “rules” now) Bishop Healy is properly considered the first man of African-American ancestry to be ordained a priest. Father Tolton is properly considered to be the first man with two slave parents to be ordained a priest.

But, wait! There’s a third candidate!

When I was in my 20s, my dad began the practice of sending me a calendar every year from an order of priests called the Josephites. This is an order of priests, officially known as the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart, formed in 1893 to minister to African-Americans. The man given credit for leading the founding of the Josephites was Father Charles Randolph Uncles, a native of Baltimore. November 8 will mark the 152nd anniversary of Father Uncles’ birth in 1859.

Father Charles Randolph Uncles (1859-1933)

So, given what we know about Frs. Healy and Tolton, where does Father Uncles fit in? His parents, Lorenzo Uncles and Annie Marie Buchanan, both had been slaves. Charles Randolph Uncles was ordained in 1891 –after both Healy and Tolton had been ordained. But remember, it depends upon how you ask the question. Uncles was ordained in New York City. Both Healy and Tolton, though Americans, could not attend seminary in the United States because of racism and therefore were ordained outside the United States. So Father Uncles rightfully can be called the “first black priest ordained in America.” [It should be noted, speaking of the "rules" of racial identity, that Charles Uncles and his parents were described as being light enough to pass for white.]

Indeed, at the time, it was big news. Here’s the New York Times headline from December 19, 1891:
CR Unlces Ordained

The Times story noted:

The congregation gathered to witness and participate in ceremonies was more than usually large and included many of the best colored people of the city. A special reason for the presence of the latter was that the first man of their race to be ordained a priest in the United States and that he was to have that high honor bestowed upon him by the Cardinal Archbishop himself–the primate of episcopacy of the country.

Lorenzo and Annie Uncles were Catholics. They and their family attended Mass at St. Frances Xavier Church in Baltimore which was, as the New York Times put it, “a church for colored people, but from which whites were not excluded.”

As a young man, Charles was an altar boy at St. Frances Xavier. He graduated number one in his high school class. After that, he taught in the Baltimore County public schools until he was 25 years old. During this same period of time, he was being tutored by a priest from St. Joseph’s seminary (for black men only) in Baltimore. Finally in 1883, Charles Uncles went to St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec, graduating in 1888. Back in Baltimore he then entered St. Joseph’s seminary. But he applied to attend classes at St. Mary’s Seminary which was then for white men. The faculty of St. Mary’s put the matter to a vote of the seminarians. They were unanimously in favor of admitting Charles Uncles. And so it was that three years later, he was ordained a priest. He began teaching at the Epiphany Apostolic College, which was then located in Baltimore. In 1925, the college moved to New Windsor, New York, and Father Uncles moved also.

He died on July 20, 1933 at the college, and is buried there.

To put this subject in perspective, the following might be said:

1. James Augustine Healy (1875-1900), ordained in Paris in 1854 for the Diocese of Boston, was the first priest and the first bishop of African ancestry in the United States.

2. Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), ordained in Paris in 1886 for the Diocese of Alton, Illinois, was the first priest of acknowledged African slave ancestry in the United States.

3.  Charles Randolph Uncles (1859-1933), ordained in Baltimore in 1891 for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was the first priest of African ancestry to be ordained in the United States.

[Acknowledgements Donna Pointkouski directed me to a biography of Father Tolton, From Slave to Priest, which is available on Amazon.com. Later I heard from Sabrina A. Penn, third grand-niece of Father Tolton's. She's written a book about him called A Place for My Children, which is available at http://www.publishersgraphicsbookstore.com/]

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