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Father Purcell makes major contributions to North Idaho

by Robert Singletary Special to The Press
| December 18, 2020 1:00 AM

Thomas J. Purcell was born in Wales of Irish parents in 1868. He came to the U.S. with his parents when he was about 12 years old. After working in the Pennsylvania coal mines as a teenager, he made his way west, first to Denver, then Montana and finally Spokane. There he met Father Cataldo and through his influence decided to become a priest. In 1897, one year after he was ordained, Father Purcell came to North Idaho, where he served until his death in 1925.

In his early years of service, he was the pastor at Rathdrum and Coeur d’Alene. At that time Rathdrum was the county seat. His first major contribution to this area was the construction of the St. Stanislaus church in Rathdrum in 1900. It was the first brick church built in Idaho.

In 1902, Father Purcell made another contribution to the area. He traveled to Scranton, Pa., and convinced the Sisters of Immaculate Heart to open a private school in Coeur d’Alene. St. Cyrils’s, the city’s first Catholic school was opened in September of 1903. Three years later the new school had acquired the Fort Sherman opera house and hospital building, which was moved to Ninth and Indiana. The St. Cyril’s school was moved and attached to the opera house and the combined buildings became the Academy of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These old buildings served the school until a new building was constructed in 1957. That building is the current Sorensen elementary school.

In 1907, Father Purcell set out to make one of his greatest contributions to Coeur d’Alene, which was the building of the present St. Thomas Catholic Church on the northeast corner of Ninth and Indiana. Excavation of the site began in June of 1909 and the cornerstone was laid on Aug. 22. Structural work was completed on May 1, 1910. The decorative interior work was started the following November. The new St. Thomas church was occupied by the parish on March 5, 1911.

St. Thomas, with its turreted steeple, gold-leafed cross, arched windows, and Greek-Ionic interior remains the most impressive church building in North Idaho today.