Essentials of Forgiveness

The Amazing Dignity of Bishop James Healy

By Mary L. Stough

Father James Healy was supposed to be relaxing during this 1870s Maine summer, but here he was, conducting a catechism lesson for neighborhood children. Though Healy was on vacation from his parish duties in Boston, he could not ignore the fact  that the religious education of these young St. Denis parishioners was being neglected. These were the children of Irish immigrants. As the eldest son of an Irish immigrant himself, Healy understood all too well that society had relegated these recent immigrants to the lowest rung on the social ladder. The only class lower than the Irish at that time were blacks, like his mother. James Healy was one of eight children. His father, Michael Morris Healy, was an Irish immigrant who had become a wealthy landowner in Georgia, with large acreage in cotton and 49 slaves. His mother was Michael Heal/s mulatto slave wife, Eliza Cark Healy. Since Eliza Clark Healy had been born into slavery, all the children from her marriage were—bylaw—also condemned to a lifetime of slavery. Healy could not have known the future, that a war would free the slaves. He by no means intended to leave his children's lives to chance or slavery. As each of their sons came of school age, he was quietly taken north, baptized, and then educated to take his place in a free society. The four Healy brothers, Michael, James, Patrick, and Sherwood, all were enrolled in the newly founded Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The youngest, Michael made his career in the Cutter Service (now the Coast Guard). He, like his brothers, was light complexioned and so decided to pass for white; it was the only way he could advance to the rank of Captain. The other brothers chose their careers in the Church. Patrick became a Jesuit priest and the president of Georgetown University, Sherwood a priest in the Boston diocese, and James, after ordination in 1854, served in Boston as the bishop's secretary, then as chancellor, cathedral rector, and finally as pastor of St. James Church. The brothers' racial origins were known only to close friends and their superiors in the Church. Feeling rather good about his session with the children, Father James Heal/was unprepared for the angry reaction from the St. Denis pastor the following day. The priest was apparently upset about the "strange priest" who took it upon himself to instruct the young parishioners.

Father Peterson, no man to mince words, bellowed his displeasure at Healy. Just who did he think he was, coming here from Boston with his big-city ways? If he. Father Peterson, needed help with his parish, he knew how to ask for it. And when he did, it wouldn't be from a man with the slightly darker complexion and jet-black hair, thank you!

Healy, taken completely aback, apologized. But Peterson was not placated and threatened to denounce the interloper. No amount of explanation or begging from Healy would change Peterson's mind.

And so, on the following Sunday, Peterson mounted the pulpit in a great rage. The gossip about the incident had already circulated throughout the parish. The congregation sat with attention riveted on the pastor. The priest's face mirrored his emotions as he pounded the pulpit. He made it clear that he would not tolerate any outside interference at St. Denis.

"Especially," he thundered, "I do not want anyone with 'indelicate blood' instructing the parish children." There, he'd said it! Everyone sat stunned. Father Peterson had his revenge.

The years passed. In April 1875, the new bishop-elect, James Healy, traveled through Maine to acquaint himself with his new diocese. And when he did, memories of an unpleasant incident came flooding back.

Healy wasn't the only one who remembered. When Father Peterson, still a pastor in the diocese, found that Healy was about to become his bishop, he sent in his resignation. But Healy refused to accept it. As humiliating as the memory was, now was the time to show that the bishop was a person who could not only forgive but also forget.

Peterson was currently pastor of the church at Rockland. His meeting with the bishop-elect, strained as it was, was reassuring. Peterson realized the new bishop was a priest of character and forgiveness far surpassing his own. And, to his own relief, Healy realized that he had the loyalty of the now-chastened pastor.

Healy, however, had one more item of concern. Curiosity, perhaps, was the parishioners' reaction as their new bishop mounted the St. Denis pulpit in North Whitefield, where he'd once suffered the indignity of racial denunciation at the hands of Father Peterson. Curiosity, perhaps, was the parishioners' first response, but genuine affection and respect followed.

In his first pastoral letter, Bishop Healy commented on the wonderfully hospitable welcome he'd received in his new diocese. Then, he laid out the rules and regulations. But he reserved special emphasis for a long-neglected bit of unfinished business.

"I request you to consider," he commented, "that to denounce by name is like arbitrary and therefore unjustifiable excommunication.... The almost inevitable result of denunciation is to extinguish whatever little faith is left in the heart of the denounced person, and to wound the feelings of friends and relatives."

For the next 25 years, Bishop Healy ran his diocese with meticulous care for his flock. He never again referred to the degrading treatment he'd received at the hands of Father Peterson, not even indirectly. And the people of the Diocese of Portland quickly came to regard him as one of their own.

The matter of the bishop’s complexion was never referred to again.


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