CHICAGO — More than a year after some African-Americans scrutinized the blackness of the nation's first black president, America's Catholics are now wrestling with the same questions to determine who was the nation's first black priest.
The debate emerges as the Archdiocese of Chicago seeks sainthood for the Rev. Augustus Tolton, long hailed in Chicago as the first African-American clergyman to serve in the U.S. Catholic Church.
A rival for the title is Bishop James Augustine Healy, who was ordained in 1854, the year Tolton was born. But Healy, son of an Irish-American landowner and a mixed-race slave, was light-skinned enough to pass as a white man. And in many cases, he did.
Chicago's Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, the prelate leading the charge for Tolton's sainthood, argues that Tolton's story reflects the authentic African-American experience of overcoming racial discrimination to pursue a calling.
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"Tolton is being proposed (for sainthood) because his ministry as a priest and a young lad trying to go to school was plagued by racial apartheid in this country," Perry said. "He suffered a great deal. In the midst of that suffering, he remained steadfast. He remained endeared to the Catholic faith. ... The Healy family never shows up in the African-American saga."
Still, Healy is championed as an African-American hero and history-maker in the Archdiocese of Boston.
"I really think he needs to be recognized, because even if he did not see himself as African-American, his experience of having a mother who was African-American shaped him," said Lorna DesRoses, coordinator in the Boston Archdiocese's office of outreach and cultural diversity.
Healy's attempts to pass as white illustrate what African-Americans had to do to succeed at that time, DesRoses said.
"That he chose to do that is part of the struggle," she said.
Just as Barack Obama's election led Americans to confront the nation's history of slavery and segregation, the cause for Tolton's sainthood has inspired some American Catholics to come to terms with the church's past sins of racial discrimination.
Tolton's rise to prominence began with his family's escape from slavery as the Civil War began. Baptized before crossing the Mississippi River to Quincy, Ill., he was encouraged by the parish priest there to join the priesthood. Because no American seminary would admit a black man, Tolton traveled to Rome to be ordained.
Despite Tolton's wishes to become a missionary in Africa, Rome sent him back to Quincy. He eventually was assigned to Chicago, where he founded St. Monica's, the city's first black parish, on the South Side.
Vanessa White, director of the Tolton Center for African-American Catholics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said his commitment to serving African-Americans is all the more reason he should be considered the church's first black priest.
"You have to understand the context they lived in," she said. "Father Augustus Tolton focused his ministry on the black community."
As bishop of Portland, Maine, Healy served another marginalized population: Native Americans.
The eldest of 10 siblings, Healy was raised Catholic but attended a Quaker school in New York. In 1849, he graduated valedictorian of the first class at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
He attended seminary in Canada and was eventually ordained in Paris. But he distanced himself from an African-American identity. He declined to participate in African-American organizations and turned down invitations to address the National Black Catholic Congress, citing the New Testament —"Christ is all and in all" — as his reason.
James O'Toole, author of "Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family," said that denial comes across to some as betrayal. To others, it gives a new dimension to the struggle. But he believes contemporary categories or agendas shouldn't be imposed upon historical figures.
"In a sense, that can look like racial treason. Why are you denying who you are?" said O'Toole.
"Those are very much the standards of today. But they're not their standards. As a historian, that's what ought to govern here. ... We should be assessing them on their own terms."
But Michelle Wright, associate professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University and author of "Becoming Black," cautions that ceding to Healy's self-identity could further the misconception that African-Americans did not contribute to society.
"You have students beginning to assume only white people do philosophy or do physics," she said. "You do need to understand someone you venerate as a pillar of Western civilization has a mixed ancestry."
Father Anthony Kuzniewski, a history professor at College of the Holy Cross, said efforts to honor the Healy family are attempts by the church to make up for its past.
O'Toole said the time is right for the church to engage in conversations about race and ethnicity as the composition of the worldwide church evolves. It's also in line with the country's ongoing conversation about race.
"I think race is very much on people's minds," White said. "In one sense, because of the fact we have an African-American president, it's allowing more honest communication and it's also allowing us to have the conversations which we may not have been having in the public arena, which may have been happening in the private arena."