Although he died half a century ago, the iconic Joseph Cardinal Ritter’s legacy is still honored today. He began his journey in Indiana, where he was born in 1892, and continued on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1967. He dedicated his life to faith and service. He believed in equality and the rights of individuals, even of those whose religious beliefs differed from his own. As a pioneer of ecumenism and a leader of evangelists, his list of accomplishments included many “firsts” that lighted new ways of thinking for many religious leaders in his city. This influence he exerted over others helped shape the Christian community in profound ways that cannot be ignored.
Joseph Elmer Ritter was born on July 20, 1892, in New Albany, Indiana. His childhood home was renovated and kept open for religious organizations in order to keep his legacy alive. He was one of six children, and his father worked at their family’s bakery. He was of German lineage from his mother’s heritage. From a young age, religion played an important role in his life which later influenced Ritter to serve God and his people as a priest. He attended a private Catholic school, St. Mary, during his elementary years. In seventh grade, he decided that priesthood was his future so he attended St. Meinrad’s Seminary, a school for future priests. He completed his studies in 1917, and was ordained a priest at St. Meinrad Archabbey by Bishop Joseph Chartrand. His first assignment was a parish in Indianapolis named St. Patrick’s Church. He received an honorary Doctorate of Theology from Pope Pius XI in 1922. On March 13, 2014, Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz described Joseph Ritter as an “embodiment of humility, loving kindness, and simplicity” and compared his ability to attract and touch people's lives to Pope Francis.
For a long time, Saint Louis held a significant role in the history of American Christianity. It served as a center for sending many evangelists to the American West to preach to Indian nations and offer spiritual refuge for Catholics that moved into the newly acquired territories west of the Mississippi River. It was even referred to as the “Rome of the West” for training and sending out priests and other evangelical figures (Schneider, 2008). Cardinal Ritter not only continued this tradition, but also took it a step further after he was appointed as the archbishop of this city. He even sent people beyond the borders all the way to Bolivia and South America. He focused his efforts on educating and training the evangelists, teaching them to give respects to the traditions and cultures of the locals as much as possible. While he supported informing people of Christian values, he strongly discouraged his co-workers from forcing anything onto them. He summarized his views on the missions to South America by saying, “If a priest going to South America wants to introduce American ideas, American customs, or institutions in South America, he is going to waste his time and somebody’s money that’s given to him.” (Schneider, 2008) His line of reasoning garnered the attention of many religious leaders, attracting them to Saint Louis.
Ritter’s method of introducing the gospel was influenced by the fact that he was a strong promoter of ecumenism, both of which focused on understanding one another’s principles. During the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, he argued that there was only one church and that it is the Church of Christ. This ideal led to him to work hard to form better relationships with other churches in Saint Louis. He became the first archbishop to give a major address in a Protestant seminary in America and was even understanding towards the city’s large and diverse Jewish community (Schneider, 2008). Many religious leaders of both the Protestants and Catholics criticized him for going too far too fast, judging his actions as imprudent. Nevertheless, St. Louis became the core of ecumenical activities in the 1960s as more and more people became sympathetic to his cause.
Along with his work with evangelism, Ritter was deeply involved in many other aspects of life in Saint Louis. He was appointed the fourth bishop of Saint Louis, Missouri by Pius XII on July 20, 1946. Continuing some of the work he began in Indiana in Saint Louis, Ritter served as a leader in education, specifically Catholic education, an advocate for immigrants, and a champion of the well being for the community as a whole. One of his first edicts in his new role was to racially integrate St. Louis Catholic schools, a bold move in a segregated city. Many local Catholics opposed this order, including one “self-thinking Catholic” who bemoaned “the colored children coming to our school and church, with the whites.” When local Catholics threatened to take the matter to civil authorities, Ritter responded with a promise of automatic excommunication for anyone who may “presume . . . to interfere in the administrative office of their Bishop by having recourse to any authority outside the Church.”
As waves of immigrants entered Saint Louis following WWII, Ritter sponsored an Institute on Immigration concerned with immigration work. Joseph Ritter worked closely with Father Elmer Behrmann to increase the number and quality of schools and churches offering education for special needs students. From 1950 to 1980, thirty-one rooms for special education were established in parishes and six special schools were established (Schneider, 25). Additionally, in June 1960, Ritter sent a directive ordering that Catholics in St. Louis Archdiocese could not attend secular colleges without written permission. Ritter was confident with his request due to the access of Catholic colleges in the area including Saint Louis University, Fontbonne College, Maryville College, and Webster College. These institutions swelled with students, and Saint Louis became renowned for it’s ability to offer a full Catholic education at every level from grade school through university. On March 23, 1961, in honor of of his leadership and influence in the cause of education, Saint Louis University honored Archbishop Ritter as an honorary “Founder of Saint Louis University.” (Schneider, 76). An unfulfilled dream of Ritter’s predecessor, Cardinal Glennon, was to build a hospital for children. Doctor Peter G. Danis, in aims of fulfilling this dream, sought out Ritter’s support. Together they organized and led a four year campaign in which some 100,000 Saint Louis residents gave $7,000,000 for the project, allowing the dream to become a reality (Scheider, 66). Throughout his work, Joseph Ritter raised more than $125,000,000 to build forty-one new parishes, sixteen high schools, and Cardinal Glennon Memorial Hospital (Schneider, 111). He was installed as a Cardinal in 1961.
Joseph Ritter was a man who dedicated his life to others. Through service, education, faith, and leadership, he touched so many lives. His work left many footprints on the city of Saint Louis, and the impact is still being felt to this very day. Along with his legacy, Cardinal Joseph Ritter has Cardinal Ritter High School and Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School named in his honor, a museum about his life in his hometown New Albany, Indiana, and a mosaic tile depiction in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis all commemorating him and his ongoing legacy.
Researched and written by Maria Jaime, Haley Serra, and Nu Yang.
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Schneider, Nicholas A., and Justin Rigali. Joseph Elmer Cardinal Ritter: His Life and times. Liguori, MO: Liguori, 2008. Print.
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