James Theodore Holly
Bishop of Haiti & Dominican Republic
8 November 1911
Born in 1829 in Washington, DC, James Theodore Holly was the descendent of freed slaves. Great-great grandfather James Theodore Holly was a Scotsman in Maryland. He was master of several Holly slaves whom he freed in 1772, including his son and namesake James Theodore Holly. This son married the daughter of an Irish Catholic whose last name was Butler, and they were the great grandparents of Bishop James Theodore Holly. Their son Rueben was Bishop Holly’s grandfather.
Holly was baptized and raised a Catholic yet gradually he moved away from the Catholic Church. He spent his early years in Washington, D. C. and Brooklyn, NY where he connected with Frederick Douglass and other Black abolitionists. He was active in anti-slavery conventions in the free states, participating in abolitionist activities.
Bishop Holly left the Roman Catholic Church over a dispute about ordaining local black clergy and joined the Episcopal Church in 1852. He was a shoemaker, then a teacher and school principal before his own ordination at the age of 27. He served as rector at St Luke’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut and was one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People (a forerunner of UBE) in 1856. This group challenged the Church to take a position against slavery at General Convention.
In 1861 he left the United States with his family and a group of African Americans to settle in Haiti—the world’s first black republic. In July 1863 Holly organized the Holy Trinity Church. He lost his family and other settlers to disease and poor living conditions but was successful in establishing schools and building the Church. He trained young priests and started congregations and medical programs in the countryside. During this time Haiti was split with the Vatican and most men of Haiti supported their religious sentiment through the symbolism and observance of the Masonic Lodge. As an experienced Masonic leader and scholar, Holly visited the Masonic temples and made friends among their members. He was also willing to perform Masonic burial services.
In 1874 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. He was named Bishop of the Anglican Orthodox Episcopal Church of Haiti. He attended the Lambeth Convention as a bishop of the Church. Bishop Holly was also given charge of the Episcopal Church in the Dominican Republic from 1897-1911. He died in Haiti in on March 13, 1911.
Project Canterbury has a short Autobiography of Bp. Holly online.
Nov. 8, the date of his consecration as bishop, is an alternate date for this Commemoration.