ROXBURY — The Rev. Robert H. Purcell, a former pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Margaretville, New York, who was responsible for fostering an interfaith initiative throughout the Catskill community, died Thursday, July 17, 2014.
Because of his ecumenical efforts, our region was blessed with good will and mutual respect among various religious factions. Friends enjoyed by the father were not exclusively Catholic parishioners, and his annual Passover celebrations were enormously popular.
He was 80 years old and resided in Villa Shalom in Roxbury, New York, where he had created an adoration chapel in honor of the blessed mother, to whom he held a special devotion his entire life.
Father Bob’s path to the priesthood was a circuitous one, unique from the typical calling heard by most young men.
Born April 13, 1934, to Francis J. Purcell and Aldea “Mim” Heroux, who were married July 30, 1933, in St. Joseph’s Church in Cohoes, New York, he attended and graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in Cohoes, Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, St. Thomas Prep School in Bloomfield, Connecticut, St. Mary’s University in Baltimore, Maryland, Siena College in Loudonville, New York, Our Lady of Angels in Glenmont, New York, and St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York.
A serious student and academic, he held master’s degrees in English, history, languages, education and theology. Father Bob taught at La Salle Institute in Troy, New York, and Queensbury High School in Queensbury, New York. Sought after as an esteemed lecturer, he appeared at the University of Montreal in Canada, the Foreign Exchange School of Gstaad, Switzerland, the American School in Paris and the Foreign Exchange School in Rome.
In 1970, he left his post as superintendent of schools in Averill Park, New York, to enter the seminary. His ordination was celebrated at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Albany in 1975 by Bishop Edwin Broderick, and his first assignment as an associate pastor was to St. Alphonsus Parish in Glens Falls, New York. Upon his arrival, his new parish began to benefit immediately with the initiation of the annual bazaar and the formation of the St. Alphonsus Action Group. The Rev. Purcell became president of Glens Falls Interfaith Clergy Association and a member of the St. Alphonsus Board of Education, the executive board of Warren and Washington Counties Community Action Agency, the board of directors for the Emergency Housing Agency in Glens Falls, the Warren County Social Services Advisory Counsel, the board for the Albany Diocese Council on Aging, the advisory council for Warren county day care centers and assistant principal at St. Alphonsus school.
He served as director of altar services at St. Joseph’s Parish for 14 years, director of religious education at Our Lady of Angels Seminary and dean of the deaconate class of Christ the King Seminary in Olean. He had been a member of the United Commercial Travelers of America since 1965 and the Sectaries of America and was a past counselor of U.C.T.
Appointed pastor of Sacred Heart in July 1978, upon his arrival in Margaretville, Father Bob, as he was affectionately known, discovered a rectory in dreadful repair, plagued with collapsing walls, crumbling bathroom facilities, a leaking roof and a cellar full of unholy water.
As if this situation wasn’t sufficiently challenging, at its first meeting, the reigning Parish Council presented Father Bob with a “wish list” of projects that members were hoping to accomplish. Upon inspecting the three churches that comprised the parish —Sacred Heart in Margaretville, St. Ann’s in Andes, New York, and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Roxbury — and tallying the mid-summer collections totaling $300, the good reverend began to have serious questions concerning the sanity of the council members after being ensconced for only one short week.
Miraculously, his tenacity and good humor prevailed.
Last on the original list of goals presented at the initial Parish Council meeting, the Purcell Center is now the pride and joy of parishioners and the community at large. Utilized for religious instruction, meetings and social functions, the Purcell Center is considered one of the most prominent achievements of Father Bob’s tenure.
Other highlights of his 25 years as pastor include significant improvements to each church:
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— St Ann’s in Andes boasts myriad aesthetic updates, including a new roof, new paint on the interior and exterior, a new sanctuary, new light fixtures and a new organ.
— Our Lady of Good Counsel in Roxbury sold its old rectory to help facilitate cosmetic repairs, including a new paint job and sidewalks as well as a new sanctuary, carillons, public address system and organ.
— Sacred Heart in Margaretville saw roof repairs, the installation of flagstone terraces, carillons and a new organ and public address system. The parishioners are particularly proud of the magnificent stained-glass windows. Additionally, the rectory was completely remodeled.
These monumental projects could not have been accomplished without the enormous increase in parish enrollment. In his first 10 years as pastor, the number of families jumped from 180 to 513 and is still growing. During this timeframe, the number of children attending the Religious Education program nearly doubled from 51 to 97.
The Rev. Purcell was named dean of Delaware County from December 1978 through July 2002. Due to medical reasons, he retired as pastor in 2002.
Beloved as a counselor and spiritual mentor to his flock, Father Bob always had uplifting words of reassurance for those seeking guidance.
One parishioner summed up the feelings of many. Having suffered the devastating loss of his wife in a tragic accident, the gentleman shared his feelings with a friend, commenting, “Fifteen minutes with Father Bob is better than hours of conversation with a therapist.”
In thanks to the community that gave so much to him and his mother, Father Bob donated the new emergency wing of Margaretville Memorial Hospital in memory of his mother and father, Francis J. and Alde “Mim” Purcell, in 2009.
It is appropriate that calling hours will be held at his residence, Villa Shalom, in Roxbury. The Rev. Robert H. Purcell will lie in state from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 2014.
A Mass of the Resurrection will be held at noon Sunday, July 20, at Our Lady’s Chapel in Villa Shalom.
A memorial Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 24, at Holy Trinity Church, 122 Vliet Blvd., Cohoes.
Burial will follow at St. Joseph’s cemetery in Waterford, New York.
Funeral arrangements are entrusted to Miller Funeral Home in Roxbury.