John Baptist Purcell

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John Baptist Purcell
John Baptist Purcell.jpg
Born (1800-02-26)February 26, 1800
Mallow, County Cork, Ireland
Died July 4, 1883(1883-07-04) (aged 83)
Church Roman Catholic
Ordained 1823
Offices held
Archbishop of Cincinnati
Styles of
John Baptist Purcell
Mitre (plain).svg
Reference style The Most Reverend
Spoken style Your Excellency
Religious style Monsignor

John Baptist Purcell (February 26, 1800 – July 4, 1883) was an Irish-born prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Bishop of Cincinnati from 1833 until his death in 1883, and was elevated to the rank of Archbishop in 1850.

Early Life and Education[edit]

John Baptist Purcell was born at Mallow, County Cork, Ireland. Of his early education but few particulars can be found. His parents, Edward and Johanna Purcell gave their children all the advantages of the education attainable at a time when the penal laws were less rigorously enforced. Purcell displayed remarkable talent and mastered all the branches of the school curriculum before his eighteenth year.[citation needed]

Purcell decided to seek higher education in the United States. Landing at Baltimore, Maryland, he soon obtained a teacher's certificate at Asbury College. He spent a year giving lessons as private tutor in some of the prominent families of Baltimore. His ambition, however, was to become a priest. On 20 June 1820, he entered Mount St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland. His knowledge of the classics helped him take charge of important classes in the college, and at the same time prepare himself for the priesthood by the study of philosophy, theology, and other branches of ecclesiastical science.[citation needed]

After three years' study in the seminary he received tonsure and minor orders from Archbishop Ambrose Maréchal, of Baltimore, at the close of 1823. On 1 March 1824, in the company of Rev. Simon Gabriel Bruté, one of the professors of the seminary, afterwards first Bishop of Vincennes, he sailed for Europe to complete his studies in the Sulpician Seminaries of Issy and Paris. On 26 May 1826, he was one of the three hundred priests ordained in the cathedral of Paris by Archbishop de Quelen.[citation needed]


After his ordination, Purcell continued his studies until the autumn of 1827, when he returned to the United States to enter Mount St. Mary's Seminary as professor. He afterwards became president, until his appointment as Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, to succeed the saintly Fenwick. Purcell received notice of his appointment in Aug., 1833, and was consecrated bishop in the cathedral of Baltimore, 13 Oct., 1833, by Archbishop James Whitfield. He attended the sessions of the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore, which opened on the day of his consecration and continued for one week.

After winding up his affairs in connection with the seminary, he set out for the scene of his life's work. Going from Baltimore by stage to Wheeling, and from Wheeling to Cincinnati by steamboat, he reached his destination 14 Nov., 1833. Bishops Benedict Joseph Flaget and John Baptist Mary David of Bardstown, Rese of Detroit, and a few priests met him and conducted him to his cathedral, which was on Sycamore Street. He was canonically installed by Bishop Flaget, who made the address of welcome. After the installation Bishop Rese, who had administered the diocese during the vacancy, made the legal transfer of the property in his charge. The site of the first cathedral and at that time the only church in the city, a humble structure, is now occupied by the imposing St. Xavier's Church, accommodating over one thousand families, under the care of the Jesuit Fathers.

Founder bishop[edit]

On his arrival in 1833 Bishop Purcell found himself in a city of about 30,000 inhabitants and only one Catholic church. The diocese embraced the whole State of Ohio. The prospect presented to the young bishop, then in his thirty-third year, was enough to fill his mind with misgiving and dread. The difficulties increased, for soon the tide of immigration turned towards Ohio. Immigrants from Germany and Ireland came in thousands, and as most were Catholics it became his duty to provide for their spiritual wants, and that had to be done quickly. A seminary had been founded by Bishop Fenwick in the Athenaeum, which stood near the cathedral. The number of students was of course very small, but Bishop Purcell had to rely on this little band to help him in his work. He began his work as a bishop with an energy and earnestness that never flagged during his whole life. He was untiring in his labour, preaching and giving lectures, writing articles for the "Telegraph", a Catholic paper founded by Father Young, a nephew of Bishop Fenwick, the first Catholic paper published in the West. He taught classes in the seminary. At his first ordination he raised to the priesthood Henry Damian Juncker, afterwards first Bishop of Alton, Illinois. He lost no time in providing for the wants of the growing Church in Cincinnati. Holy Trinity on Fifth Street, the first church built for the German-speaking Catholics, was soon followed by another, St. Mary's, at Clay and Thirteenth Streets.

In order to staff the seminary and school, Purcell invited the Jesuit Fathers, to whom be gave over the church property on Sycamore Street. Purchased a site for his new cathedral on Plum and Eighth Streets, and Western Row (now Central Avenue), then the western boundary of Cincinnati, Bishop Purcell began constructing a magnificent structure 200 feet long and 80 feet wide, built of Dayton limestone, with a spire of solid stone rising to the height of 225 feet. Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral became one of the West's finest. Archbishop Samuel Eccleston of Baltimore, 26 Oct., 1846, consecrated it thirteen years after Bishop Purcell's arrival at Cincinnati. After trying several locations for his diocesan seminary, Bishop Purcell finally located it on Price Hill, west of the city limits. The main building was completed in 1851, and named Mount St. Mary's of the West, after his own Alma Mater at Emmitsburg. Bishop Purcell also established two orphan asylums, St. Aloysius's for the children of German-speaking parents, and St. Peter's (now St. Joseph's) for children of English-speakers.

He made a complete visitation of his extensive diocese the first year of his administration, providing for the spiritual care of his scattered flock, either placing resident pastors in parishes or having priests to visit regularly the smaller communities that were unable to support a resident pastor. Bishop Purcell made several trips to Europe, visiting the various seminaries there, and recruiting missionaries for Ohio and points further west. On one trip, Bishop Purcell returned with by Fathers Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Gacon, Cheymol, and Navaron. Father Machebeuf afterwards became first Bishop of Denver; Father Lamy, first Archbishop of Santa Fé. In addition, pioneer missionary Stephen Badin spent his last years in the care of the cathedral.

Both Ohio and city of Cincinnati boomed. Cist's "Cincinnati" (1851), in its church statistics, gives the Catholics 13 parishes and 11 parish schools, with an enrollment of 4494 pupils. Bishop Purcell from the beginning was an earnest advocate of the establishment of parish schools. The rapid growth of Ohio and the West was recognized in Rome, and in 1850 Cincinnati was made an archbishopric. The pallium was conferred on Archbishop Purcell by Pope Pius IX, who at the same time made him assistant at the pontifical throne, in appreciation of his personal worth. The new ecclesiastical province of Cincinnati had for suffragans the Diocese of Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Louisville.

The following religious orders came to the archdiocese during the incumbency of Archbishop Purcell: the Sisters of Charity, founded at Emmitsburg, came to Cincinnati in 1829, in union with the Sisters of Charity of France. In the changes, the Sisters formed an independent community, taking the name of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Archbishop Purcell received their vows in 1852. The Jesuit Fathers took charge of the college in 1840, and the congregation in 1847. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Belgium, came to Cincinnati in 1840. The Precious Blood Fathers came to Ohio in 1840. The Franciscan Fathers came to the diocese in 1844; the Good Shepherd Sisters in 1857; the Sisters of Mercy in 1858; Little Sisters of the Poor in 1868; Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis in 1858; Ladies of the Sacred Heart in 1869; and the Passionist Fathers in 1870.

Response to Anti-Catholicism[edit]

In 1837 Bishop Purcell became a member of the Ohio College of Teachers. At one of the meetings the discussion turned on religion, and some remarks were made reflecting on the Church. Bishop Purcell asked leave to reply to them at length. In a spirit of fairness, Dr. Wilson offered the bishop the use of his church on Fourth and Main Streets to reply. This offer was gladly accepted, and the bishop delivered a masterly discourse. The position and teaching of the Catholic Church were put before the people of Cincinnati so clearly and forcibly as to cause many who heard the bishop at least to reconsider the ideas they had formed of Catholic teaching and practice. The Catholic Church was unfavourably known by non-Catholics at the time, owing to the false charges made by preachers and the spread of anti-Catholic literature giving false views of her teaching and practice. The lecture was a surprise to many who had up to that time looked upon Catholics as a danger to the country. It stirred up a great deal of discussion in the community, so much so that Alexander Campbell, pioneer of the Restoration Movement, felt called to take upon himself the defence of Protestantism. He sent a letter to Purcell challenging him to a public debate. The bishop accepted the challenge, and invited Campbell to call at his residence in the Athenaeum on Sycamore Street to arrange for the debate. The meeting took place at 2 p. m. on January 11, 1837. The debate was to begin February 13, continue for seven days, exclusive of Sunday. Two sessions were to be held each day, the morning session from 9 to 12.30, the afternoon from 3 to 5. The debate was to be held under the direction of five moderators, two to be chosen by each of the disputants, these four to choose a fifth. Campbell was to open the discussion, Bishop Purcell to reply. The discussion was to be taken down by shorthand writers, printed after revision by the disputants, and sold, the net proceeds to be distributed equally among Catholic and Protestant charities. The moderators selected were Messrs. Samuel Lewis, Thomas J. Briggs, William Disney, John Rogers, and J. W. Piatt.[citation needed]

Campbell's charges were:

  • (1) The Catholic Church is not now nor was she ever Catholic, Apostolic, or Holy, but is a sect in the fair import of the word, older than the sects now existing, not the Mother and Mistress of Churches, but an apostasy from the Church of Christ.
  • (2) The notion of Apostolic succession is without foundation in the Bible and reason.
  • (3) She is not uniform in faith, but fallible and changeable as other sects in religion and philosophy.
  • (4) She is the Babylon of St. John.
  • (5) Purgatory, indulgences, confession, and transubstantiation are immoral in their tendencies, injurious to the well-being of society, political and religious.
  • (6) The world is not indebted to the Church for the Bible.
  • (7) If the Church is infallible and unchangeable, she is opposed to the spirit of the institutions of the United States, which means progress. At the close of the debate one of the city papers said "Catholicity lost nothing and Protestantism gained nothing by the discussion."

In 1867, Vickers preached a sermon at the laying of the cornerstone of St. John's Evangelical Church, in which he made charges against the Church. Archbishop Purcell felt called upon to take notice of Vickers's sermon. This he did in a sermon preached at the laying of the cornerstone of St. Rose's Church. This brought on a discussion in the columns of the "Catholic Telegraph" and the "Cincinnati Gazette". The discussion attracted little attention, as the archbishop had to patiently follow his opponent, refuting the oft-repeated false charges against the Church. In 1853, Purcell alienated Cincinnati's Protestants by arguing that Catholics should not be taxed to support public schools.[1]

Later that year he created controversy when he invited Gaetano Cardinal Bedini, the emissary of Pope Pius IX, to visit Cincinnati. The German Protestant "Forty-Eighters", who had fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848, saw Bedini as a symbol of oppression due to his role in putting down revolution in the Papal States in 1849. They organized a protest march to Purcell's residence, where Bedini was staying, on Christmas Day 1853. When the demonstrators clashed with police, several were injured and one died.[2]

The observatory cornerstone was laid on Mount Adams on November 9, 1842, by John Quincy Adams, ex-president of the United States. He stated, "This observatory is to be a beacon of true science, that should never be obscured by the dark shadows of superstition and intolerance symbolized by the Popish Cross". Three decades later, 2 June 1873, the archbishop preached a sermon on the "Triumph of the Cross". He had before that placed the cross above the observatory when he built his votive church called the "Immaculata" on Mount Adams.[citation needed]

Slavery and the Civil War[edit]

Until 1861 Archbishop Purcell condemned slavery only in the "abstract", emphasizing the "prudential motives" that made abolition ill-advised, in his opinion.[3]

Vatican Council[edit]

Archbishop Purcell attended the Council of the Vatican, and in the discussion of Papal Infallibility he took the side of the minority which opposed the opportuneness of the decision, but on his return from Rome, which he left before the question was decided, he gave in his adhesion to the doctrine as soon as he learned of the signing of the decree by Pope Pius IX. This he did in a sermon he preached in the cathedral saying, "I am here to proclaim my belief in the infallibility of the pope in the words of the Holy Father defining the doctrine."[citation needed]

Later years[edit]

Archbishop Purcell celebrated his golden jubilee of priesthood 26 May 1876. Bishops and archbishops came personally or sent representatives. He had reason to rejoice when he saw the result of his work. When he came to Cincinnati he found a small city with but one church, and a diocese with a few Catholics scattered through the state. After 43 years of toil he found the city grown to a population of nearly 300,000, with forty well-organized parishes having schools giving Catholic education to 20,000 children, a well-equipped seminary, colleges, and charitable institutions to take care of the poor and sick.[citation needed]

Throughout the diocese were well-organized parishes, churches, and parish schools. Forty years before he had only a few priests; in 1876 he could count on the help of 150 diocesan and 50 regular priests, and a Catholic population of 150,000. In reply to the addresses of congratulation on the occasion, he modestly referred the success to the cordial assistance of the priests and the generous aid of the laity. The serious financial disaster that clouded his last years came as a result of his natural brother and fellow priest, Father Edward Purcell, as well as the long-lasting effects of the Panic of 1873, also known as the Long Depression. Father Purcell took deposits from people who mistrusted banks, which were unstable institutions until the general government adopted national banking regulation. The Cincinnati crash or scandal occurred in the autumn of 1878, shortly after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was suppressed. The archbishop died five years later.[citation needed]

After 14 years of litigation and mismanagement of assignees, the affair came to an end, when the court found the amount due (with compound interest) from the cathedral and diocesan institutions to be $140,000. Archbishop William Henry Elder, who succeeded Archbishop Purcell, accepted the findings in 1892 and assessed parishes to meet the loans made to pay the judgment, and all the loans were repaid.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Frederick J. Blue (1987). Salmon P. Chase: a life in politics. Kent State University Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-87338-340-0. 
  2. ^ James F. Connelly (1960). The visit of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini to the United States of America: June 1853-February 1854. Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana. p. 96ff. ISBN 88-7652-082-1. Retrieved 2010-10-25. 
  3. ^ Catholicism and American Freedom, John McGreevy, W. W. Norton, 2003, p. 82.


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "John Baptist Purcell". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Edward Fenwick
Bishop & Archbishop of Cincinnati
Succeeded by
William Henry Elder