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John Baptist Purcell

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Archbishop of Cincinnati, born at Mallow, Ireland, 26 Feb., 1800; died at the convent of the Ursulines, Brown County, Ohio, 4 July, 1883. Of his early education but few particulars can be found. His parents, Edward and Johanna Purcell, being industrious and pious, gave their children all the advantages of the education attainable at a time when the penal laws were less rigorously enforced. John displayed remarkable talent and mastered all the branches of the school curriculum before his eighteenth year. Entrance into the colleges of Ireland was an impossibility. He therefore decided to seek in the United States the higher education denied him in his native country. Landing at Baltimore be applied for and obtained a teacher's certificate in the Asbury College. He spent about one year in giving lessons as private tutor in some of the prominent families of Baltimore. His ambition was to become a priest, and this he never lost sight of while teaching others as a means of obtaining a livelihood. On 20 June, 1820, he entered Mount St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg. His previous knowledge of the classics made it an easy task for him to 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, After three years' study in the seminary he received tonsure and minor orders from Archbishop Mareschal, 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. After his ordination he 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. He received notice of his appointment in Aug., 1833, and was consecrated bishop in the cathedral of Baltimore, 13 Oct., 1833, by Archbishop 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 connexion with the seminary, be 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 Flaget, 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 been administrator of 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. On his arrival in 1833 Bishop Purcell found himself in a city of about 30,000 inhabitants and only one 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 they were all 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 Athenæum, 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 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. Finding it impossible to provide professors or give his own time to the seminary, he called to his aid the Jesuit Fathers, to whom be gave over the church property on Sycamore Street, and purchased a site for his new cathedral on Plum and Eighth Streets, and Western Row, then the western boundary of Cincinnati. Western Row is now Central Avenue. The new cathedral, a magnificent structure 200 feet long and 80 feet wide, built of Dayton limestone, with its beautiful spire of solid stone rising to the height of 225 feet, is one of the finest in the West. This grand temple was completed and consecrated by Archbishop Eccleston of Baltimore, 26 Oct., 1846, thirteen years after Bishop Purcell's arrival at Cincinnati. After trying several locations for his diocesan seminary, he finally located it on Price Hill, west of the city limits. The main building was completed and opened for the theologians in 1851. He called it Mount St. Mary's of the West, after his own Alma Mater at Emmitsburg. Two orphan asylums were established, St. Aloysius's for the children of German-speaking parents, and St. Peter's, now St. Joseph's, for children of English-speaking people, and provision was made for their maintenance.

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. In 1940 the canal and railway systems that were to revolutionize the existing conditions of commerce were begun and continued without interruption until 1854. Little Miami Railroad from Xenia to Cincinnati, a distance of 65 miles, was opened for traffic in 1841. It is now a link in the great Pennsylvania system. These public works brought immense numbers of emigrants to the state. What were villages soon grew into cities; Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Dayton, and Hamilton became the cities of the state. New parishes were formed, and churches and schools were built. Cleveland became a bishopric in 1847, and Columbus in 1868. He was obliged to call on Europe for help to meet the fast-growing wants of his diocese.

Bishop Purcell made several trips to Europe, visiting the various seminaries there, and soliciting students having the missionary spirit to share his labours in Ohio. On his return from one of these trips to Europe he was accompanied by a band of zealous young priests, Fathers Machebeuf, Lamy, Gacon, Cheymol, and Navaron. Father Machebeuf afterwards became first Bishop of Denver; Father Lamy, first Archbishop of Santa Fé. The others lived to a ripe old age, doing missionary work in the diocese till God called them to their reward. While the state was growing in population, the city of Cincinnati did not lag behind. 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.

In 1861 the archbishop did not hesitate in making known his views on the Civil War. He decided to fly the flag from the cathedral spire. This action of the archbishop called forth a great deal of adverse criticism, as there was at the time an influential party in the North opposed to the war. Many Catholics were in sympathy with this party. The archbishop boldly took his stand and ignored the adverse criticism. The event showed the wisdom of his course. The last vestige of insane Knownothingism and its hatred of the Church disappeared. This wave of bigotry which spread over the whole country in the early fifties had showed itself decidedly hostile to Catholics in Cincinnati in 1854, when Archbishop Bedini was the guest of Archbishop Purcell. The firm stand taken by the German and Irish Catholics under the direction of the archbishop overawed the mob that threatened to destroy the cathedral and thus prevented bloodshed.

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".

He celebrated his golden jubilee of priesthood 26 May, 1876. He was joined in this celebration not only by his diocese but by the whole country. 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 forty-three 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. 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 was the result of circumstances for which he could hardly be responsible. Giving all his time to the spiritual management of the diocese, he left the material part altogether in the hands of his brother, Father Edward Purcell. He received deposits from people who were mistrustful of the banks, which were unstable institutions until the general government adopted the national banking system during the War of Rebellion. The large amount involved represented the accumulation of compound interest. This financial disaster crushed out the lives of the archbishop and his brother. The crash came in the autumn of 1878, and the archbishop died five years later. His brother had passed away in the spring of the preceding year.

After fourteen years of litigation and the mismanagement of the assignees, the affair came to an end, when the court found the amount due on the cathedral and diocesan institutions to be $140,000. Archbishop Elder accepted the findings of the court and made arrangement by a system of assessments on the parishes to meet the loans made to pay the amount required by the final decision. This decision was made in 1892. Under the wise administration of Archbishop Elder, who succeeded Archbishop Purcell, all the loans have been paid off.

In 1837 Bishop Purcell, wishing to come in touch with the learned men of Ohio, 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. This permission could not be granted under the rules limiting speeches to ten minutes. 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 Campbelle, founder of the Campbellite wing of the Presbyterian Church, felt called to take upon himself the defence of Protestantism. He sent a letter to Bishop Purcell challenging him to a publie debate. The bishop with a great deal of reluctance accepted the challenge, and invited Mr. Campbelle to call at his residence in the Athenæum on Sycamore Street to arrange for the debate. The meeting took place at 2 p. m. on 11 Jan., 1837. It was agreed to hold a debate in the Baptist Church, now St. Thomas's Catholic Church, on Sycamore Street. The debate was to begin 13 Feb. and to continue 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.

Mr. Campbelle 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.

Mr. Campbelle's charges were:

At the close of the debate one of the city papers said "Catholicity lost nothing and Protestantism gained nothing by the discussion." It made a profound impression on the community at large. Catholic doctrine was brought before the people in a way they had never understood it before. Thinking men were led to lay aside the prejudice caused by their ignorance of the Church. Bishop Purcell's ability as a public teacher was recognized and his learning respected. The reputation and standing he acquired by this discussion he maintained during his entire administration. The members of his own flock were encouraged when they found their bishop so competent to teach them their faith and defend it against the attacks of non-Catholics. The discussion brought him into prominence throughout the whole country. He was called upon to deliver lectures and preach sermons in nearly every diocese. He was looked upon as the representative bishop of the West, as Archbishop Hughes was of the East.

In 1867 Mr. Vickers preached a sermon at the laying of the corner-stone of St. John's Evangelical Church, in which he made charges against the Church. Archbishop Purcell felt called upon to take notice of Mr. Vickers's sermon. This he did in a sermon preached at the laying of the corner-stone 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.

The observatory corner-stone was laid on Mount Adams 9 Nov., 1842, by John Quincy Adams, ex-president of the United States. He is reported to have said in the course of his speech, "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". The position is now the site of the Holy Cross Monastery of the Passionist Fathers. The monastery was solemnly dedicated 22 June, 1873, when the archbishop preached a most eloquent sermon on the "Triumph of the Cross". This was his reply to the remarks of John Quincy Adams and his slur on the Cross of Christ. He had before that placed the cross above the observatory when he built his votive church called the "Immaculata" on Mount Adams.

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 of 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.


Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati); SHEA, History of the Catholic Church in the United States; CIST, Cincinnati (1851).

About this page

APA citation. Murray, J. (1911). John Baptist Purcell. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Murray, John. "John Baptist Purcell." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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