William Henry Elder was born March 22, 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland, the ninth of ten children of Basil and Elizabeth (Snowden) Elder. He attended Mt. St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland and graduating in 1837. Elder then began his studies for the priesthood at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, also in Emmitsburg. Coincidentally, the headmaster of the seminary was Rev. John Baptist Purcell whom Elder would later succeed as Archbishop of Cincinnati. In 1842, Elder was sent to Rome, Italy to earn a Doctorate of Divinity from the College of the Propaganda. He was ordained a priest in Rome on March 29, 1846, and then joined the faculty of his alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary. On May 3, 1857, Elder was appointed Bishop of Natchez, Mississippi; he was the youngest bishop in the United States at that time.
During the Civil War, Bishop Elder heroically tended to the hungry, wounded, and deceased of both armies—the Confederacy and the Union. In 1864, he was imprisoned for refusing to comply with a Union order requesting “prayers be offered for the President of the United States and the success of the Union arms.” Following a written appeal from Elder directly to President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued the order for his release from Federal custody.
In 1878, Elder was asked to transfer to San Francisco, California; however, he requested permission to remain in Natchez to minister to the victims of the yellow fever epidemic that had been ravaging Mississippi. His efforts to help those in need earned Elder the gratitude, respect, and admiration of the entire region. In January of 1880, Pope Leo XIII appointed Bishop Elder as Coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to succeed Archbishop John Baptist Purcell.
Bishop Elder arrived in Cincinnati on Sunday, April 18, 1880. Purcell, now ailing from poor health, retired to the convent of the Ursulines of Brown County (Ohio) and Elder assumed the responsibilities of running the archdiocese. Upon Purcell’s death in July of 1883, Elder was elevated to Archbishop of Cincinnati. His major focus during his tenure was to reestablish a firm financial foundation for the archdiocese, to reopen the seminary, and to promote Catholic education within the parishes.
Archbishop Elder died on October 31, 1904, only four days after his last official appearance at a celebration of the Sisters of Charity at Cedar Grove Academy (now known as Seton High School). At the time of his death, Archbishop Elder was the oldest bishop in the United States both in age and tenure. Rev. Henry Moeller succeeded Elder as Archbishop of Cincinnati.
Archbishop William Henry Elder had a reputation for being an effective arbiter among the Catholic bishops of the United States, brokering major compromises on a variety of topics. He was recognized for his wisdom, faith, unfailing kindness, and genuine holiness by the people he served and by the Church of that era. He is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery off Rapid Run Pike in Price Hill, less than two miles from Elder High School.