Archdiocese’s most senior priest, Father Purfield, dies at 93

Roxanne King

Father James Purfield, who marked his 65th anniversary as a priest last year and was the eldest priest in the Denver Archdiocese, died Feb. 19. He was 93.

During his long priesthood he served in numerous parishes in metro-Denver and Colorado Springs, did mission work outside the country, pastored a noteworthy 30 years at All Saints Parish, and was known for his faithful service to the homebound and compassionate aid to the needy.

“He excelled in loving those who no one else noticed and who would come at the most inconvenient times,” Father Roland Freeman said in the eulogy at his longtime friend’s funeral Mass Feb. 24 at Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. “[He had a] deep awareness of Christ the poor one who is always with us.”

James Richard Purfield was born in Colorado Springs on Aug. 26, 1926 to U.S. Army Col. Emmett J. Purfield and Helen Carson Purfield. When he graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School in 1944, World War II was still ongoing. He entered the U.S. Navy and served as a Seaman 1stClass until June 1946. While in the Navy, he was stationed six months at a shore station on the island of Trinidad, British West Indies.

“He met a priest on the island of Trinidad whose name was Father James Purfield, I think he was the one who really convinced Father Jim to become a priest,” the priest’s younger brother, Bill Purfield, said with a gentle laugh.

After being honorably discharged, he attended Maryknoll Junior Seminary in Los Altos Calif., for a short time before working a brief stint at a Phoenix newspaper as part of the Maryknoll’s Christopher Movement. He entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in 1948 and was ordained to the priesthood on May 29, 1954.

As a priest he served as assistant pastor at the parishes of St. Patrick in Denver, St. Mary in Littleton, St. Mary in Colorado Springs, and as administrator pro-tem at Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver. He served as pastor at the parishes of St. Patrick in Denver, St. Peter in Fleming, Holy Cross in Thornton, St. John the Baptist in Longmont, St. Augustine in Brighton, St. Anthony in Hugo, Our Lady of Victory in Limon, St. Joseph in Fountain, All Souls in Englewood and All Saints in Denver.

He ministered as chaplain at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs. He also served on mission for a year in Mexico in the mid-1970s and a year in Lima, Peru, in the early 1980s.

During Father Purfield’s three decades as pastor at All Saints, his brother was among his parishioners.

“I always called him Father Jim,” said Bill Purfield, expressing his respect and admiration for his elder brother. “He was really great about helping people, particularly people who were homebound. He did a lot of that.”

The priest’s longtime friend and former parishioner Dolores Batter agreed, noting that even after Father Purfield retired at 88 in 2014, he continued visiting the homebound until last year.

“On a weekly run, he’d visit eight to 11 people and it took the entire day,” she said, adding that he also celebrated Mass for the residents of Denver’s Porter Place Assisted Living for 30-plus years. “Father’s last Mass at Porter Place was January 13, 2019. He was 92.”

Father Purfield was known for his listening ear, wise counsel and financial help, Batter said listing many who testified to the good guidance and generous aid he had given—often out of his own pocket—with needs ranging from groceries to transportation.

“The good Lord knew what he was doing when he chose Father as one of his servants,” Batter said.

He had a deep prayer life that undergirded his ministry, strong opinions that he vociferously shared, was a loyal friend and relished playing cards, Father Freeman said in the funeral eulogy.

“His ministry was the same as Jesus’s,” he said. “To invite into his love and friendship all who in God’s providence came to him.”

“Father Purfield loved his priesthood,” emphasized Father Freeman. “For him it was the most precious gift of his life.”

A rosary and vigil were held at All Saints Church on Feb. 23. Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the main celebrant at the funeral Mass held the next day at the Cathedral Basilica. Burial followed at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

COMING UP: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.