William Henry Elder

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William Henry Elder
Archbishop of Cincinnati
Portrait of archbishop william henry elder thomas eakins.jpeg
Portrait of Archbishop William Henry Elder by Thomas Eakins, 1903
ChurchRoman Catholicism
SeeArchdiocese of Cincinnati
In office1883–1904
PredecessorJohn Baptist Purcell
SuccessorHenry K. Moeller
OrdinationMarch 29, 1846
Personal details
Born(1819-03-22)March 22, 1819
Baltimore, Maryland
DiedOctober 31, 1904(1904-10-31) (aged 85)
Cincinnati, Ohio
Previous post(s)Bishop of Natchez (1857–1880)
SignatureWilliam Henry Elder's signature

William Henry Elder (March 22, 1819 – October 31, 1904) was a U.S. archbishop. He served as the Bishop of Natchez from 1857 to 1880 and the Archbishop of Cincinnati between 1883 and 1904.


Early life and education[edit]

William Henry Elder was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 22, 1819. His father, Basil Elder, was a descendant of William Elder (1681–1714), a Catholic immigrant from England to Maryland (United States) in colonial times. His grandfather was Thomas Elder, husband of Elizabeth Spalding, thus making William a first cousin once removed of Catherine Spalding, co-founder of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. His mother was Elisabeth Miles (née Snowden) Elder.[1]

In 1831 Elder entered Mt. St. Mary's College, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, then presided over by the Rev. John Baptist Purcell who afterward became the second bishop, and later the first Archbishop of Cincinnati. Elder graduated in 1837 and entered the seminary. In 1842 he was sent to Urban College in Rome for further studies, where he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity.[1]

Ordination and Bishop of Natchez[edit]

Bishop Elder

Elder was ordained a priest in Rome, March 29, 1846. He became professor at the seminary at Emmitsburg, Maryland, a position he held until appointed to succeed James Oliver Van de Velde as Roman Catholic Bishop of Natchez. He was consecrated in the cathedral of Baltimore by Archbishop Francis Kenrick, on May 3, 1857. The diocese was comprised the entire state of Mississippi.[1] Elder proved to be a talented organizer and administrator

On the eve of the Civil War, Bishop Elder wrote to his father:

It is hard to tell what is to be the fate of the country. I have not enough of political sagacity to see what will be the course of events, nor what would be the fruit of the remedies proposed. . . . We can all unite in praying to God to guide and protect us.[2]

Elder celebrated Mass for the wounded and ministered to soldiers and freedmen gathered in Natchez. He sent priests to serve as chaplains in the Confederate Army and Sisters of Mercy to nurse the sick and wounded, and he gave his blessing to a Natchez volunteer company.[3]

During the Union occupation of Natchez, Elder caused some controversy for refusing to obey an order to have prayers for the President of the United States recited publicly in the churches of his diocese. On June 18, 1864, Colonel B.G. Farrar, commander at Natchez, and former schoolmate of Elder's at Mt. St. Mary's, issued an order requiring the clergy to include prayers for the President of the United States in their services, as a "public recognition of allegiance under which they live, and to which they are indebted for protection..."[4] Elder responded with a lengthy letter of protest in which he explained that his declining to submit had no political significance, but the "Liberty of the Church to discharge her divine functions, without interference form other persons."[4] Brigadier General James Madison Tuttle issued an order for inforcement, which was stayed at Elder's request, pending input from the War Department. Elder wrote to President Abraham Lincoln explaining that his refusal was based on the authority of the church to regulate church services. Senator Francis Kernan responded, saying he had met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Stanton indicated that he would communicate to Tuttle to remedy the situation so there would be no further interference. Elder subsequently wrote thanking Stanton for the protection extended to religious freedom, and asking that the ruling be made known to other commanders.[5]

Later, Colonel Farrar was placed in command of Natchez; he noted Tuttle's order had neither been rescinded nor was being obeyed. General Mason Brayman, the next commander, took a harder stance, saying "...military orders are to be followed, not discussed..." and issued an order for Elder to be sent to jail in Vidalia, Louisiana. Federal troops took Elder to Vidalia for a few weeks. After Washington officials intervened, Brayman ordered the release of Elder on August 12, 1864.[5]

During his time in Natchez, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in 1878. Ministering to the sick, Elder caught the disease. He survived but lost six diocesan priests.[2] At the time he arrived in Natchez the diocese had eleven missions (churches), nine priests and 10,000 Catholics. When he left, there were forty-one churches, 25 priests, six religious houses for men, five convents, thirteen parish schools and 12,500 Catholics.

Archbishop of Cincinnati[edit]

On January 30, 1880, he was transferred to Cincinnati, becoming coadjutor bishop with the right of succession to Archbishop Purcell, whom he succeeded July 4, 1883. Archbishop Elder was third bishop and second archbishop of Cincinnati. He became bishop at a time of great financial difficulty in the archdiocese. Elder systematically organized the administration of the diocese. He reopened Mount Saint Mary Seminary in 1887, which had been closed since 1879.[6]

He instituted the office of chancellor of the diocese and insisted on annual reports from clergy and parishes in order to bring the diocese out of great debt.

Elder served the archdiocese until his death in Cincinnati on October 31, 1904, from influenza. He is buried at St. Joseph Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Legacy and honors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Deasy, Timothy. "William Henry Elder". The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. January 23, 2019
  2. ^ a b "Bishop William Henry Elder", Roman Catholic Diocese of Jackson
  3. ^ Vaughn, William. "William Henry Elder", Mississippi Encyclopedia, Center for Study of Southern Culture, April 14, 2018
  4. ^ a b McPherson, Edward. The Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion, Philp & Solomons, 1865, Appendix p. 538
  5. ^ a b Character Glimpses of Most Reverend William Henry Elder, D.D., published by Frederick Pustet & Company, New York and Cincinnati, 1911
  6. ^ Fortin, Roger Antonio. Faith and Action: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1821-1996, Ohio State University Press, 2002, p. 171, ISBN 9780814209042

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "William Henry Elder". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

External links[edit]

Episcopal succession[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Bishop of Natchez
Succeeded by
Preceded by Archbishop of Cincinnati
Succeeded by