The Montgomery-based City of St. Jude is a Roman Catholic social-service organization that was established in 1937 to provide medical, educational, and spiritual assistance to African Americans in central Alabama. Founded by Father Harold Purcell, a Catholic priest, the City of St. Jude was the first Catholic institution in the state of Alabama dedicated exclusively to ministering to African Americans. The organization played an important support role during the civil rights movement, and it continues to provide services to African Americans in and around Montgomery.
Purcell was born in Raven Run, Pennsylvania, in 1881 and ordained a priest in the Passionist religious order in 1904. His early career involved working with the poor, and he was shocked by the plight of many African Americans wherever he went. In the 1930s, Purcell envisioned a "city" where he would be able to improve the lives of the downtrodden. In Alabama, Purcell traveled among an African American population who would likely benefit most from his efforts. In 1934, Purcell sought permission for such a project from Thomas J. Toolen, Bishop of Mobile, who consented, so long as the head of Purcell's religious order agreed. Purcell's superior, however, denied his request; rather than give up, Purcell was released from his commitment with the Passionist Order and became a priest in the Diocese of Mobile.
In May 1934, Purcell remodeled a large white frame house on Holt Street in Montgomery to house a chapel, a clinic, an office, and living quarters for the religious personnel who would be carrying out the organization's ministry. Then, in 1936, with funds granted him by Bishop Toolen, Purcell bought 56 acres of land in Montgomery between Hill and Oak streets, where he erected a church. Bishop Toolen dedicated it to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of difficult and impossible causes, in 1938.
The church building had classrooms in the basement, but Purcell was not satisfied with the facilities, and in 1940 he began to construct a school for local African Americans. The school was designed and built by local African Americans and when completed, consisted of 32 classrooms and staff rooms with facilities for at least 600 students. In addition to religious and educational services, Purcell also wanted to offer medical care to Montgomery's African American population and opened a clinic to provide treatment and supplies. In 1949, construction began on a hospital, and in 1951, the $1.5 million facility opened its doors to patients. This extraordinary amount of money was made possible by funding from the Hill-Burton Act of 1946, federal legislation, sponsored in part by Alabama senator Lister Hill, that provided grant money for the construction and modernization of medical facilities in underserved parts of the nation. Father Purcell was able to match the federal grants with money from private donors. The hospital, administered by the Vincentian Sisters of Charity from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had 165 beds and was the first completely integrated hospital in the Southeast. It was also the first hospital in the region that admitted all patients regardless of race or creed.
From his base in Montgomery, Purcell established a number of mission churches throughout Alabama that were modeled on the City of St. Jude. Purcell died in 1952, but his efforts lived on and over the years, his vision and work have been carried out by directors of the City of St. Jude, who are appointed by the Archbishop of Mobile. In 1962, St. Jude opened a school of practical nursing and one year later inaugurated a program to provide prenatal care to expectant mothers from low-income families.
The City of St. Jude gained national exposure during the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in March 1965. Civil rights supporters camped each night at various locations along the route, and on the last night before reaching Montgomery, they camped on the grounds at St. Jude. The hospital at the City of St. Jude also became a part of civil rights history when Detroit homemaker and voting-rights activist Viola Liuzzo was taken to the hospital at the City of St. Jude in a vain attempt to save her life after she was fatally shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan. On the 25th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1990, the City of St. Jude was host to a commemoration ceremony. Former governor George Wallace was in attendance greeting civil rights workers at the door. This support for the civil rights movement was in keeping with Purcell's original vision for his institution.
Unfortunately, St. Jude also experienced a downturn in donations because of its role in assisting the marchers. The financial situation became so serious that the director contemplated closing the entire operation. Eventually, the slump in donations ended, and the City of St. Jude today continues the mission first envisioned by Harold Purcell. Although the hospital closed in 1985, in 1992 the building was converted to apartments for low-income families and seniors; it was dedicated by Oscar H. Lipscomb, then the Archbishop of Mobile. The St. Jude Educational Institute, a college preparatory and job skills school, closed in May 2014 because of lack of funding.
Today, the City of St. Jude continues to provide many of the services envisioned by Father Purcell. The Father Purcell Memorial Exceptional Children's Center provides high-quality health care to children with birth defects and children who suffer from mental or physical damage resulting from abuse. More than 400 families claim membership in the City of St. Jude Catholic Church, and it is host to numerous religious and community organizations.
Keith R. Claridy
Published November 6, 2008
Last updated May 19, 2014