William Henry Elder was born on 22 March 1819 in Baltimore. His parents were commission merchant Basil Spalding Elder and Elizabeth Snowden Elder. He graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1837, and after a long period of further education, he was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church on 29 March 1846. For the next ten years he served as a professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s.
In 1857 Elder was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Natchez, a small, isolated frontier diocese that covered the entire state of Mississippi and included eleven churches and five schools with twelve priests. He proved to be a talented organizer and administrator. Over the next twenty-three years, in spite of the tremendous disruption of the Civil War, he built a network of forty-eight churches and twenty-three schools supplemented by a handful of religious houses and supported by numerous associations and sodalities.
Elder began his work in the diocese with the 1859 completion of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Natchez. From the beginning, he planned an ambitious program of building and growth. His efforts to carry out his plans were temporarily halted by the outbreak of the Civil War. He accepted secession as a duty to public order and the war as a fait accompli, but he did not believe his fellow Catholics should claim that the church officially sanctioned either. For example, he wrote to Catholic newspaper editor Napoléon-Joseph Perché, “It is not well for them to have the appearance of acting in a body as Catholics in sustaining any particular measure . . . urging on to steps that are most likely to lead to war.” Nevertheless, he sent priests to serve as chaplains in the Confederate Army and Sisters of Mercy to nurse the sick and wounded, and he gave his blessing to a Natchez volunteer company.
In 1863 US forces seized Vicksburg and then occupied Natchez. Elder did not actively oppose the occupation, although he spoke with Confederate soldiers and bought a Confederate bond while making a circuit of his diocese, most of which remained outside Union lines. The following year, Col. Benjamin G. Farrar, a former student with Elder at Mount St. Mary’s and now acting commander at Natchez, reissued an order that all local ministers should read a prayer for the elected officials of the US government, including the president, in Sunday services. When Elder refused, asserting that the order violated both church prerogative and the US Constitution, he was exiled across the Mississippi River to Vidalia, Louisiana. He was allowed to return seventeen days later without being required to read the prayer on the grounds that military authority had been sufficiently vindicated.
During Reconstruction, Elder helped guide the rebuilding and expansion of the Natchez Diocese. In 1878 a lethal yellow fever epidemic swept through Mississippi, straining the diocese’s resources. Elder contracted the disease and almost died of the illness after his subordinates forced him to take charge of Catholic relief efforts in Vicksburg. He left the diocese in 1880 to become coadjutor and later sole archbishop of Cincinnati, a post he held until his death on 31 October 1904.
- William Henry Elder, Civil War Diary (1862–1865) of Bishop William Henry Elder, Bishop of Natchez (1960)
- Richard Oliver Gerow, Cradle Days of St. Mary’s at Natchez (1941)
- James L. Pillar, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837–1865 (1964)
- William Henry Elder Letterbooks, Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson
- Sadlier’s Catholic Almanac (1881)