This is the first major study of the Healy family since Jesuit Father Albert Foley's biography of Bishop James Healy in 1954. The bishop of Portland in Maine from 1875-1900, James Healy was the nation's first Catholic bishop of color. He was the son of an Irish immigrant slave-owner in Georgia named Michael Healy and his common law wife, Eliza, a slave on his plantation. That their son could rise to become a member of the ecclesiastical establishment in nineteenth century New England is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, nearly all of James Healy's siblings attained some distinction in their careers, with the possible exception of the youngest, Eugene, who was a consummate vagabond about whom little is known. Two other brothers entered priestly life, and two sisters joined religious orders. The eldest died at the beginning of a promising business career and another sister married. All were converts to Catholicism.
This generation of Healys is re-examined by James O'Toole, a church historian at Boston College and former archivist for the Archdiocese of Boston. He begins with the parents—Michael and Eliza—and the good fortune they enjoy in the ante-bellum south. O'Toole's next three chapters pertain to the childrens' formative years in the early to mid-1800s. A middle chapter on the role of the Civil War, where the Healy children support the war as Northerners, not as black folk, acts as a pivot for the rest of the volume. Subsequent chapters examine the lives of Sherwood, the rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston; Bishop James Healy; Patrick, the President of Georgetown University; and three sisters—Martha (who married), Josephine, and Eliza. The chapter on the sisters is all too brief, which the author chalks up partly to the problem of self-imposed anonymity of women religious from their earliest endeavors in North America and to the virtual silence of women in suburban Boston. A penultimate chapter is devoted to Michael, a captain in the United States Revenue Cutter Service, what eventually became the Coast Guard.
O'Toole is interested in the entire family because, as Foley and surviving photographs make clear, only some of the Healy children could "pass for white." The Healys were able to conceal their racial features or otherwise subvert social mores by denying their heritage as sons and daughters of a slave. O'Toole contends that they did so willingly. His thesis is unsettling precisely because he tries to portray the Healys as renouncing their true selves. This is a risk, because it presumes that the "true self" is defined racially.
To support the thesis, O'Toole relies on diary entries and letter books from the period. Unearthing these documents is to be welcomed by scholars of the nineteenth century Church, but O'Toole sometimes plays it fast and loose with the evidence—or lack of evidence. For instance, he notes how as a priest James Healy found nothing in the Civil War that would permit him to reconsider "the distance he had put between himself and African Americans. If anything, it confirmed his self-definition as white, different from them" (88). This attitude, O'Toole suggests, continues into his tenure as bishop of Portland. It may be noted that Healy's pastoral activities rarely brought him into contact with black Catholics, except on a few occasions when he served on a bishops' committee for "Negro and Indian missions" or when he declined participation in a "Congress of Colored Catholics." Although the bishop's actions on these matters could be explained in a number of ways (for instance, that he was too busy with other matters), O'Toole claims "the real reason for staying away was a continuing desire not to be identified with the racial group in question" (140). This is raised to a kind of mantra when the author deals with the other siblings, too, and the narrative suffers under its strain.
What O'Toole's text does supply is a lesson on coming to terms with contemporary views of race through a reflection on an unusual family from the past whose choices make modern sensibilities uncomfortable. Bodies no longer serve as definitive racial markers. Conceptualizing race in value terms is equally elusive. Traditional alliances between racial and religious groups also appear to move beyond stereotype. As Passing for White suggests, difference is evaporating.
Americanists and Church historians will find this book to be kind of a counterpoint to Foley's earlier work, insofar as James Healy is portrayed in less admirable terms. Those with interests in African American studies and Black Catholics in particular will benefit from O'Toole's work as well.