Elder, William Henry
ELDER, WILLIAM HENRY
Archbishop; b. Baltimore, Md., March 22, 1819; d. Cincinnati, Ohio, Oct. 31, 1904. His parents, Basil Spalding and Elizabeth M. (Snowden) Elder, had 13 children; William was the second youngest living. He attended a private school in Baltimore and at 12 entered Mt. St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Md., graduating in 1837. He then entered the seminary department of the college, received the diaconate in 1842, and was sent to the Urban College in Rome, where he was ordained on March 29, 1846. Upon his return to the U.S., he was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at Emmitsburg. There he taught theology, Church history, and Scripture, and acted as rector of the seminary until Jan. 9, 1857, when he was named bishop of Natchez, Miss.
Ordinary of Natchez. Elder was consecrated on May 3, 1857, at Baltimore by Abp. Francis P. kenrick and installed at Natchez, May 31. There he found only 13 priests, two of whom were infirm; 11 churches, one of which was the unfinished cathedral; nine young men preparing for the priesthood; and about 10,000 Catholics in the white population of more than 300,000, and 930 Catholics in the African American population of 309,000. The bishop was the only native American clergyman in the diocese. He organized a total abstinence society and took the pledge himself in order to encourage others. During the Civil War the Northern forces entered Natchez in October 1863. When ordered by the commander of the occupying forces, Brig. Gen. Y. M. Tuttle, to insert a special prayer in the Mass for the President of the U.S. and for the success of the Northern arms, Elder refused and on April 7, 1864, wrote a masterful statement of his position to President Lincoln. Although Tuttle was removed and ultimately replaced by Brig. Gen. M. Brayman, the changes were unrelated to Elder's letter to the president. On July 22, 1864, Brayman ordered the bishop to Vidalia where he was confined for 17 days and wrote a second statement of his position to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, which again elicited no official action.
Elder attended the three Plenary Councils of Baltimore, serving on committees and confirming his own belief in the conciliar method of ecclesiastical administration. In 1868 he went to Europe to assist at the centennial celebration of SS. Peter and Paul; he attended some sessions of Vatican Council I, but did not stay for its conclusion. In 1878, Elder rendered heroic service during the yellow-fever plague, which took the lives of six of his priests and hundreds of the faithful. During this ordeal, he received word that he had been appointed coadjutor to Abp. Joseph alemany of San Francisco, Calif. Because of the critical conditions in Natchez, Elder's appeal for a postponement was approved. However, on Jan. 30, 1880, he was appointed coadjutor with right of succession to Abp. John B. purcell of Cincinnati, and he succeeded to that see on July 4, 1883.
Career in Cincinnati. When Elder arrived in cincinnati on April 18, 1880, Purcell was already in his last illness, the archdiocese was deeply involved in a bankruptcy action in the courts, and the clergy and faithful were in a state of great uncertainty. As early as 1837, the failure of small savings associations had led to the development of a diocesan project under Rev. Edward Purcell, who accepted the deposits of the faithful and paid six per cent interest. During the 1870s Purcell made large loans to several commercial ventures and when the panic of 1877 brought about the failure of these, the archbishop was thrown into bankruptcy. Legal action was initiated to gain control of all ecclesiastical property, alleging that the debts were diocesan and not those of an individual. The case, tried between April 4, 1882, and June 24, 1882, was not ended until May 11, 1905, almost a year after Archbishop Elder's death.
Elder did not allow this serious financial problem to interfere with his ordinary ecclesiastical activities; in fact he was accused several times of disinterestedness in the church's financial obligations. On March 5, 1882, he presided over the fourth provincial council of Cincinnati, whose decrees were approved by Leo XIII on June 22, 1886. In 1886 and 1898, respectively, Archbishop Elder held the second and third diocesan synods of Cincinnati. He convened the fifth provincial council of Cincinnati on May 19, 1889. In 1887 Mt. St. Mary Seminary, which had been closed for eight years, was reopened, and in 1890, a preparatory seminary dedicated to St. Gregory was established. During his 24-year tenure in Cincinnati, 32 new parishes and missions were founded, with a proportionate growth in the works and institutions of religious. By his wise rule, he restrained the German nationalists in and around Cincinnati. Throughout his life Elder was a prodigious letter writer; his correspondents ranged from cardinals in Rome to poor parishoners of St. Peter's Cathedral in Cincinnati.
Bibliography: Letters of Archbishop William Henry Elder; archives of Mt. St. Mary Seminary, Norwood, Ohio; archives of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind., diocesan archives at Jackson, Miss.; diocesan archives at Baltimore, Md.; archives of Mt. St. Mary Seminary and College and St. Joseph College, Emmitsburg, Md. r. o. gerow, Cradle Days of St. Mary's at Natchez (Natchez, Miss. 1941). m. m. meline and e. f. mcsweeney, The Story of the Mountain, 2 v. (Emmitsburg, Md. 1911).
[c. r. steinbicker]