John Purcell was a prominent leader in the Roman Catholic Church in Ohio for much of the nineteenth century.
John Purcell was born on February 26, 1800 in Ireland. He migrated to America in 1818, ad he became a private tutor for a family in Maryland. He returned to Europe in 1823. He finished his education in Paris, France, and returned to the United States as an ordained Catholic priest in 1828. Purcell became vice president and then president of St. Mary's College, in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
In 1833, Purcell left St. Mary's College to become bishop of the diocese in Cincinnati. In this new position, Purcell dedicated himself to furthering Catholic education. He oversaw St. Xavier College, modern-day Xavier University, in Cincinnati for several years. He also established various programs to provide children in hospitals and orphanages with an education.
Under Purcell's leadership, Cincinnati emerged as a stronghold for the Catholic faith. A primary reason for this was the large number of German Catholic immigrants who had settled in the Cincinnati area during the early to mid 1800s. The Cincinnati diocese originally encompassed the entire state of Ohio, but in 1847 the diocese was divided into the Dioceses of Cleveland and Cincinnati. In 1868, the Diocese of Columbus was formed. Nevertheless, Purcell still had authority over these other dioceses. In 1850, the Catholic Church made the Cincinnati diocese an archdiocese, and Purcell became the first archbishop. One of his duties was to oversee the Cleveland and Columbus dioceses.
Most Ohioans were Protestants and some of them strongly disliked the Roman Catholics. Some Protestants contended that the Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. Many Roman Catholics preferred to educate their children in private schools rather than the public schools. The Catholics became a favorite target of the Know-Nothing Party during the late 1840s and early 1850s.
Due to this opposition to the Catholic faith, Purcell often found himself protecting Catholics and defending their beliefs. In 1836, he participated in a public debate with several Protestant ministers, hoping to make Catholic beliefs more understandable to the Protestants. During the Civil War, Purcell actively sought recruits for the Union Army from his congregation and encouraged all Catholics to remain loyal to the United States government.
From the time of the Panic of 1837 through the Civil War, many Cincinnati Catholics gave money to Purcell for safekeeping. They believed that the Catholic Church had more resources available to safeguard their savings than they themselves had. During the economic depression of the mid 1870's many of these depositors went to Purcell and asked for their money. The Catholic Church had invested the money in several long-term investments, and Purcell could not easily return the money. Purcell was not personally liable for the money, but he regretted that he could not return it. He retired from his position soon thereafter and died on July 4, 1883.
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- Jordan, Philip D. Ohio Comes of Age: 1874-1899. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1943.
- Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.
- Weisenburger, Francis P. The Passing of the Frontier: 1825-1850. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941.