John Baptist Purcell was born in
Ireland in 1800,
came to the United States in
1818, entered Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg,
Maryland, in 1820, and was ordained a priest
in 1826 in the cathedral of Notre Dame in . Paris,
Upon his return to
, Purcell served as a
teacher and then rector of Mount Saint Mary's, his alma mater. In 1833 he was
consecrated bishop and was formally installed as bishop on November 14 of that
The record of Purcell's 50 years as ordinary of the diocese is overshadowed by what has become known as the "1878 Financial Failure of the Purcell Bank." Rather than entrust their savings to area banks (which frequently went bankrupt) many Catholic Cincinnatians entrusted their funds to Bishop Purcell's brother, Father Edward Purcell, for safekeeping and for earning interest. Having invested these funds in church building projects, the Purcells faced the day when there was a "run" on the Purcell bank and neither the bishop nor his brother could meet the demand. One of the kindest criticisms was the observation that "Edward Purcell's record keeping was casual to say the least."
With 20/20 hindsight we can see another shadow cast over the Catholic Church during the Purcell years, namely the Church's attitude toward slavery.
It was common practice not to assign bishops favoring abolition to dioceses in the southern states.
Ohio as a whole
maintained opposition to slavery, Father Hussey notes, "southern resented student
abolitionists and also the growing number of free Negroes who were competition
for unskilled white laborers." Ohio
Just five years after coming to Cincinnati Purcell had publicly noted the inconsistency between the existence of slavery in
and the American principle that all men are created free. America
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter Catholic bishops north and south tended to give loyal support to their respective regions. On one occasion Purcell suggested that the South could convert their abolitionist foes if only it would agree to end slavery over the next 50 or 100 years. In the face of backlash to Purcell's remark, the Catholic Telegraph, the diocesan newspaper, explained that Purcell was not saying that the federal governemnt had the right to demand abolition.
Hussey believes that the Catholic Telegraph "tried to balance two somewhat inconsistent editorial policies, one stressing the interests of white workers" (there was the fear that emancipated slaves would move north and take jobs) "and the other upholding African American rights against white prejudice."
The Telegraph's April 15, 1863, editorial sounds patronizing and derogatory, suggesting that Negroes cannot compete with the white man ("It is not in his blood or muscle or brain"). Then affirming its opposition to restoring slavery (
had issued his emancipation proclamation), the editorial turned again, saying, "We do not wish to see the black man in
competition with the white. We desire to see them far apart; there ought to be
no partnership between the two races...The natural superiority of the white
race ought to be carefully observed." Lincoln
The inconsistencies between Purcell's statements and the editorials of his newspaper make it difficult to discern his true convictions regarding slavery and the black race versus white supremacy.
After the war the Catholic Telegraph sometimes advocated leniency toward the South but declared itself opposed to Negro suffrage. The paper stated that it was the Christian thing for whites and blacks to live side by side but the editor was vague about particulars.
Hussey's history of Archbishop Purcell is available for Nook and Kindle readers for only a dollar.
Hussey did not write hagiography, but tells the story of a real person living in difficult times.
Purcell's story serves as a reminder that human beings are often a bundle of contradictions, that all of us must work through our fears and prejudices, that we are capable of heroic action and fallible choices.
It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn the man because of failures. At the same time it is worth noting the caution we ought to place upon our own judgments and those of others. History is our teacher.
Philosopher/poet George Santayana put it succinctly: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."