March 13(or November 8): James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti, and of the Dominican Republic, 1911

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

James Theodore Augustus Holly was born a free African American in Washington, D.C., on October 3, 1829. Baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, he later became an Episcopalian. Holly was ordained deacon at St. Matthew’s Church in Detroit, on June 17, 1855, and ordained a priest by the bishop of Connecticut on January 2, 1856. He was appointed rector of St. Luke’s, New Haven. In the same year he founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church among Colored People, an antecedent of the Union of Black Episcopalians. He became a friend of Frederick Douglass, and the two men worked together on many programs.

In 1861, Holly resigned as rector of St. Luke’s to lead a group of African Americans settling in Haiti. Although his wife, his mother, and two of his children died during the first year, along with other settlers, Holly stayed on with two small sons, proclaiming that just “as the last surviving apostle of Jesus was in tribulation … on the forlorn isle of Patmos, so, by His Divine Providence, [Christ] had brought this tribulation upon me for a similar end in this isle in the Caribbean sea.” He welcomed the opportunity to speak of God’s love to a people who needed to hear it.

On November 8, 1874, James Theodore Holly was ordained the first bishop of Haiti at Grace Church, New York City. This made him the first Black man to be raised to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church, and only the second Black bishop of any major denomination. In 1878, Bishop Holly attended the Lambeth Conference, the first Black to do so, and he preached at Westminster Abbey on St. James’ Day of that year. In the course of his ministry, he doubled the size of his diocese, and established medical clinics where none had been before.

Bishop Holly served the Diocese of Haiti until his death on March 13, 1911. He had charge of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic as well, from 1897 until he died. He is buried on the grounds of St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince.


I     Most gracious God, by the calling of thy servant James Theodore Holly thou gavest us our first bishop of African American heritage. In his quest for life and freedom, he led thy people from bondage into a new land and established the Church in Haiti. Grant that, inspired by his testimony, we may overcome our prejudice and honor those whom thou callest from every family, language, people, and nation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II     Most gracious God, by the calling of your servant James Theodore Holly thou gave us our first bishop of African American heritage. In his quest for life and freedom, he led your people from bondage into a new land and established the Church in Haiti. Grant that, inspired by his testimony, we may overcome our prejudice and honor those whom you call from every family, language, people, and nation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Deuteronomy 6: 20-25

Acts 8: 26-39

John 4: 31-38

Psalm 86: 11-17

Preface of Apostles and Ordinations

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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14 thoughts on “March 13(or November 8): James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti, and of the Dominican Republic, 1911

  1. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop James Holly gets an ‘or’ date for his commemoration. The Church needs to decide on one day. I suggest this day, the day of his death. [MLK is a bit more complicated because of the Federal USA holiday designation in January.]

    Bio. Note the terms: African American (capitalized), Colored People (capitalized), Black Episcopalians (capitalized), Black man (capitalized), Black bishop (capitalized), the first Black (capitalized). As per my comments previously, these are not consistent throughout HWHM.

    As his grave in Port-au-Prince is on the grounds of Saint Vincent’s school, I pray that it was not damaged in the earthquake fourteen months ago.

  2. I know nothing about Holly but what is in the bio, but it sounds from his remarks about being in Haiti for the same reason John was in Patmos that the collect is not doing him justice when he it talks about ‘his quest for life and freedom’. The connection between his faith and his actions should be made as explicit as possible. Lots of people worked for freedom and civil rights—it’s the ones who were driven to do so by their faith that we want to commemorate.

  3. The collect could begin more strongly if it didn’t have the emphasis on Bishop Holly being the first African American bishop. Though I understand and support the inclusion of “firsts”, that should be because of the person’s life and faith *after* being first. Just a tiny note also that there’s a misplaced “thou” in the contemporary language collect.

  4. On Black, black etc – I again urge the Commision to either use an existing style book or to invent their own. Rtaher than print it with HWHM, it should be available on line.

  5. Who conserated Holly as bishop?’s bio says ” he was ordained bishop at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, who refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.” Holly himself, however, says this: “at the General Convention of the American church held in New York in 1874, a covenant was concluded between the House of Bishops and the Haitian Convocation on November 3rd of that year. Under this covenant the first Bishop of the church in Haiti [Holly] was consecrated on the 8th day of the same month, in Grace Church, New York City, by Bishop [Benjamin Bosworth] Smith, then presiding Bishop of the church in the United States, assisted by six other Bishops, among whom was the Bishop of Kingston, Jamaica.” (“Facts about the Church’s Mission in Haiti,” 1897, online at Project Canterbury).
    As Satucket and other sites credit either Edward Demby (April 14) or Samuel Ferguson (August 2) (or both!) as the first African-American ordined as a bishop by the Episcopal Church per se. As they can’t all be first, HWHM needs to pin down who was first and how.

  6. James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti, and of the Dominican Republic, 1911
    TITLE: Yesterday I commented that listing someone as “bishop,” with no further accomplishment noted, was like saying he won the election but didn’t do anything worth mentioning. That applies today as well, and I do feel his missionary work, and his status as a missionary bishop, should be noted in the title. It was difficult, dedicated, important ministry, done at the considerable cost of the lives of a large part of his family’s lives. Give him credit in the title.
    Paragraph 1: The final sentence is different from the subject matter of the rest of that paragraph, giving no particulars about any programs alluded to, nor any connection with Holly’s religious development – which is the subject of all the preceding sentences. It has the ring of name dropping at a cocktail party: (“He became a friend of Frederick Douglass, and the two men worked together on many programs.”) I do think there is a place in this commemoration for pointing out “firsts” with regard to racial matters, but his main accomplishment as a Christian minister is in the area of missionary work, evangelism, and building up the human, spiritual, and institutional infrastructure of the church in Haiti. If we do include mention of Douglass, we should at least give one illustration of the claim, with a time period (pre-Haiti, in Haiti, on visits stateside, etc.)
    Paragraph 2: “Caribbean Sea” needs upper case initial letters on both words (as in the original source). This applies to the print edition of HWHM, as well. (See source document at )
    : Also, we list his wife, mother, and two children (total of four) as having died during his first year in Haiti. He himself indicates that five (not four) family members died. In his own words from the same source: “Of a family of eight persons, of which, when we sailed from New Haven, Ct., on the 1st of May, 1861, I was the head, by the 1st of February, 1862, nine months after our arrival in Haiti, only three remained alive, myself and my two little sons, aged respectively three and five years.” As a numerical matter this may not seem critical to the commemoration, but as a tragedy in his life it is worth the effort of our being accurate, since we mention the first four.
    Paragraph 3: This seems to be the paragraph where the “firsts” are gathered. I’m not sure the “second” is important to mention in a commemoration (i.e., the unnamed other denomination). His “first” regarding Lambeth could be abbreviated, and mention of his preaching at Westminster Abbey is not remarkable – he was a bishop, after all. Not mentioned is the fact that much of his work overlapped the American Civil War years, and through this time (and beyond) it is much to his credit that he maintained the important support of the church’s missionary and (possibly distracted) financial and programmatic outreach. (If this is also where his contact with Frederick Douglass took place, it could be mentioned, as well.) The paragraph’s final sentence seems to belong more to the subject matter of paragraph 4, and I would urge it be moved there, viz., with the overview of his ministerial accomplishments, his death, and burial.
    Paragraph 4: It seems odd to mention Holly’s death in the present first sentence, then go on to name his additional responsibility in the DR; I suggest combining them, stating his accomplishments and his responsibilities before mentioning death and burial. For example:
    “In the course of his ministry, he doubled the size of his diocese, and established medical clinics where none had been before. In 1897, oversight of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic was added to his Haitian responsibilities. He continued to serve as bishop until his death on March 13, 1911. He was buried on the grounds of St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince.
    READINGS: I have reservations about all four selected lections.
    1) I don’t see the connection with Holly’s commemoration. You can’t take this reading as an allegory. USA isn’t like Egypt, and Haiti isn’t like the Promised Land, even a little, in the write-up.
    2) The Exodus story doesn’t describe a free emigration, and HWHM doesn’t present those going to Haiti as in any way escaping slavery – literally or figuratively.
    3) The story of salvation through Exodus does not connect with the Church’s Missionary charge. Holly has a positive sense of carrying the Word of Life to a new land – at least in the write-up.
    4) A good OT selection might be one emphasizing “light to the nations” motif (Isaiah 42:5-8); might simply tell the story of a leader undergoing personal hardship for the sake of God (Job 1:13,19-22); or might look at an anticipated change of locus as a positive way to embrace God’s call (Genesis 46:1-5).
    PSALM: This selection is from a supplication of an individual, not a community, in which help with trouble, need for forgiveness, and divine instruction is urgently sought. Deliverance from death is mentioned (v. 13); violence from murderous enemies is feared (v. 14); and a sign of favor sought so haters will see and be ashamed when they realize YHWH is choosing to help and comfort the individual praying. I don’t see this as appropriate for the commemoration. Again, the psalm is meant as a RESPONSE to the OT lesson, not an independent lesson, so it’s appropriateness depends entirely on the OT reading – one that might fit with several would be Psalm 67, a community blessing God and asking that God’s blessing prevail in all the world.
    EPISTLE: Acts 8:26-39 is a wonderful reading, but the Isaiah passage (which the Ethiopian asks Philip about) is more attuned to the Suffering Servant motif than anything in the commemoration. That renders the selection somewhat adrift as a light on Bishop Holly’s remembrance and his work in Haiti and the DR. I found it challenging to identify a good NT passage – the voice calling Paul to Macedonia came to mind but is only a verse or two, even though it fits his sense of being called to minister in Haiti. The best candidate I can suggest is Revelation 3:7-13, the letter to the angel of the church in Philadelphia.
    7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: 8 “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying–I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
    GOSPEL: This selection has some good verses, but begins with the disciples urging Jesus to eat, — without supplying a context or foundation. It could begin at v. 34 or 35, and end with 36, 37, or 38 – none of which is totally satisfying because none of it supplies a foundation, — they just plunge into a teaching by Jesus, “in media res.” The possibilities for a good Gospel reading for Bishop Holly’s commemoration include Matthew’s missionary charge (Matthew 28:16-20); Luke’s sending of the 70 (Luke 10:1-11); or the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).
    COLLECT: I think “Dale” is exactly right by pointing to the overshadowing of Holly’s missionary ministry in the collect by the preoccupation with matters racial (my generalizations, not Dale’s). Also, several things the collect says in passing should be questioned:
    (1) “he led your people from bondage into a new land.” Nothing in the bio suggests the group was fleeing bondage. We know Holly was never a slave. Perhaps the others in the group were freemen, as well – HWHM just doesn’t say, but it certainly doesn’t lay a foundation to assume they WERE fleeing bondage!
    (2) “He established the Church in Haiti.” The source document, written by Holly himself (referred to above) indicates he preached in the Methodist and Baptist chapels in Port-au-Prince on a preliminary fact finding visit to Haiti while still a deacon. He established the EPISCOPAL Church there. He himself mentions the Haitians’ having received the Gospel from a church that had “fallen away from its original purity.”
    “Establishing” sounds like an overstatement to me.
    (3) “Grant that, inspired by his testimony, we may overcome our prejudice,…etc.” Again, I don’t see “prejudices” as a thread running through the biography, either in HWHM or in his own words in the source document. I don’t deny there IS prejudice, but I don’t see it pointed to in this commemoration.
    Based on these three considerations, I have to believe someone wrote the WRONG collect for this one. It’s about bringing the gospel to a new land and living with faith, knowing, as Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Holly even lost beloved family members in the process — fearful, indeed. THAT is where the focus belongs: on the missionary dedication to gospel work and on the eschatological faith. The score sheet on “firsts” is part of the story, but is NOT the main plot. Change the collect completely, putting first things first.
    CONCLUSION: This is an inspiring biography, with mixed up readings and a totally misdirected collect. It can be salvaged. I hope it will be.

    • My statement under “COLLECT (2)” puts the accent on the wrong word. (The summarizing statement: “Establishing” sounds like an overstatement to me”) It’s not that he didn’t establish the Episcopal Church in Haiti — it’s that “He established the Church” would be better modified by the word “Episcopal” than with no modifier at all. While I’m not likely to become one, Baptist and Methodist chapels are Christian churches, not bakeries or hardware stores with a cross on the roof.

  7. I read in the last few months that one reason the Episcopal Church got a foothold in Haiti, in contrast to other protestant denominations, was that Haitians didn’t have to learn English in order to worship in the Episcopal Church there; services were conducted in French, and the Prayer Book had been quickly translated into French. Most Haitians speak creole–a small percentage speak French. Nevertheless, the fact that English wasn’t stressed helped the Episcopal Church plant strong roots in Haiti, and I wonder if Holly had a say in that. Does anyone have a source which tells about it? I’ve forgotten where I got the information.

  8. I suggest a subtitle that reflects the reason for selecting him, not just his Episcopal titles.
    Maybe “First Bishop of color in the Episcopal Church”.

    • A second thought, the subtitle should be changed to “First African American Bishop in the Episcopal Church”. This is the reason he is commemorated.

      Line 7, second paragraph: capitalize “Sea”. ( I realize this is a quotation, but the original words were apparently spoken (“proclaiming”), and it makes sense to use the normal way of referring to a particular Sea.)

      Line 1, fourth paragraph: add “in Haiti” after “death”.

  9. Posted for Byron Rushing of the Diocese of Massachusetts:

    Holly was the first African-American ordained bishop in the American succession. The Haitian church then was not a diocese of The Episcopal Church, but an autonomous Anglican church, the Orthodox Anglican Church of Haiti. That’s why his consecration “number” is A (in the list of the Succession of American Bishops printed in the Episcopal Church Annual 2010 page 447).

    From Michael Hartney:

    His consecrators were Benjamin B. Smith (Bishop of Kentucky and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church at the time), Alfred Lee (Bishop of Delaware), and Horatio Potter (Bishop of New York).

  10. […] Most gracious God, by the calling of your servant James Theodore Holly thou gave us our first bishop of African American heritage. In his quest for life and freedom, he led your people from bondage into a new land and established the Church in Haiti. Grant that, inspired by his testimony, we may overcome our prejudice and honor those whom you call from every family, language, people, and nation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Learn more about Bishop Holly, first bishop of Haiti. […]

  11. Reblogged this on fatherfun and commented:
    Meditating on the life and ministry of Bishop Holly as I prepare for celebrating the Eucharist at Fresh Start this morning.

    FatherFun: Thanks for posting. Next time please provide your first and last name. – Ed.

  12. In addition to work in the medical field, Holly was also a leader in education. The lore in Haiti is that everywhere he established a church he also established a school. I don’t think I’ve seen that written but I’ve heard it said in Haiti by clergy there. Episcopal schools continue to be one of the important contributions of The Episcopal Church in Haiti. This is worth a mention among his accomplishments.

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