First priest, then social worker, CEO, and teller of stories: Jim Purcell on what drew him to Santa Clara—and what Jesuit education can be.
The year was 1986. Congress had just passed comprehensive immigration reform, creating a path to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants. At the time, one of the largest immigration counseling programs in the country was run by Catholic Charities, whose programs in the South Bay were led by Jim Purcell. That program was about to be swamped.
“We had to double its size overnight,” says Purcell.
Santa Clara University was in the process of launching the Eastside Project, a program to bring together the work of the University with the community in East San Jose, especially the poor. It would both help the community and transform students through an understanding of the gritty reality around them. So Dan Germann, S.J., one of the founders of the Eastside Project, came to meet with Purcell to see if Catholic Charities might partner with the University in hosting students to work with immigrants.
“We’ve got just the program,” Purcell told him.
After training by Catholic Charities, Santa Clara students helped with paralegal work and translation. They assisted people applying for citizenship. For SCU, Catholic Charities, and Jim Purcell, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was also the last time Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform.
This is a story that Jim Purcell tells on a sunny afternoon when we sit down to chat in the Joanne E. Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Family Technology Center, and Orradre Library—the intellectual heart of the campus and one of Purcell’s favorite places at SCU. He remembers vividly the day the building opened in March 2008.
“The first wave of students that walked in were saying, ‘Wow! I can’t wait to study here!’ And this place has lived up to its promise.”
It certainly has. In 2017, the library won the equivalent of the Academy Award for libraries: best blessed university library in the country, based in part on how faculty and students use its marvelous resources. Purcell helped build this place. Beginning in 1997, and for the next 14 years, he served as SCU’s vice president of University Relations. Or, as he liked to refer to himself, “Storyteller in Chief”—helping nurture support for students, scholars, and programs at Santa Clara.
Other roles for Jim Purcell: eldest of nine children, born and raised in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury before it was known as such. High schooler taught by Jesuits at St. Ignatius College Prep. When it came time for college, he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a lawyer or a priest. So he applied to Stanford University and the seminary. He was accepted by both. He opted for the seminary, figuring that if serving as a parish priest didn’t work out that he wasn’t meant to be a priest—and he could always become a litigator, like his father. Actually, there weren’t so many litigators like his father—who in the 1940s took on a case representing Mitsuye Endo, a Japanese-American woman interned during World War II, and argued it all the way to the Supreme Court. He won her release. That was young Jim’s first lesson in social justice.
Purcell is a good Irish name. But, as Jim says, “My mother’s father was 100 percent Lebanese. So I’m half Lebanese, half Irish.” When he was growing up, some folks figured him as Italian. And when he was 12 years old, a Chinese family moved into the neighborhood.
“One of our Irish-Catholic neighbors came to my father and said, ‘We gotta get rid of that family.’ My father told that neighbor where to go, and it wasn’t heaven.”
In 1962, Jim Purcell was sent to study theology with the Jesuits at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He found himself witness to an epochal change in the Church: He was in Rome when Paul VI was elected pope and convened the Second Vatican Council. Purcell was ordained a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1965.
“It was an extraordinary time. I came home with a lot of hope and anticipation about all the changes that would take place in the Church. Some of ’em happened. Most of ’em didn’t.”
“The Second Vatican Council was like creating a vision that had no strategic plan to follow up with,” he says. “Now, Pope Francis is clearly rejuvenating, and in some cases, reshaping the vision of the Church, but to what extent that vision will get translated into actionable strategic plans, that remains to be seen. He’s clearly a prophetic voice. Prophets often don’t get listened to.”
Back home in the Bay Area, Fr. Purcell went to work as a priest in Our Lady of Loretto parish in Marin County. Young families of the parish welcomed the liturgical changes being implemented. Purcell’s fellow priests elected him to an advisory group to the archbishop and then secretary of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils; he took on more deliberate work to promote Church reform. They examined the question of celibacy in the priesthood and argued for the option for priests to marry. Young priests hearing confessions also found the ban on artificial contraception problematic for their parishioners.
Many found the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in 1971 more deeply troubling. Purcell and his brother, Larry, then also a priest, were part of a delegation to Washington protesting the bombing. They were arrested in the Capitol and spent a night in jail, along with Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin.
“One of my memories of that was 90 of us in a Washington, D.C., jail, singing at two in the morning, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ in four-part harmony,” Purcell says. “It sounded great.”
For the record, Purcell sang tenor at the time.
Purcell’s own discernment led him to leave the priesthood the following year. He went to work for Catholic Social Services in San Francisco—now known as Catholic Charities. The organization was going through its own discernment process, realizing that it needed to do more than provide direct services—it needed to help empower people with community organizing.
A BIGGER STAGE
Purcell wrote his first grant. He also fell in love and got married. When he and Bernie Wetteland met, she was a nun in the parish where he was first assigned. They became friends and stayed friends after she was transferred to San Francisco. She found her life’s journey led her away from the order in 1971. Two years later, Bernie and Jim were married by an Episcopal priest who was a good friend. They petitioned to be allowed to be married in the Church but were denied twice. “On the third time, I think they realized that I wasn’t coming back. Bernie was pregnant with our second child. So finally, they said ‘Yes.’”
Purcell was increasingly doing work counseling people in the community, so he enrolled in a master’s in social work program at Catholic University of America. He returned to the Bay Area and went on to direct counseling services for San Jose Catholic Charities and later San Mateo County, then as overall director of Catholic Charities in San Jose. It was in that role that he began collaborating with SCU’s Eastside Project. He worked for the Diocese of San Jose to raise money for its cathedral. After that, Hope Services, which supports people with developmental disabilities, approached Purcell about serving as its CEO. He led the organization for five years and helped them develop a strategic plan for the next five. That’s when he got another call—from SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60, asking whether he would be interested in coming to SCU. Purcell told him he was happy at Hope Services.
“But Paul insisted, and Paul could be very persuasive,” Purcell says. “In our first meeting, he didn’t talk one word about fundraising. He talked about his vision for the University, educating men and women with competence, conscience, and compassion to make this a better world. I realized, ‘This is a bigger stage for making a difference in the world.’”
He cites the 2000 campus talk given by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, as one of the defining moments in his work. “He spoke about how a Jesuit, Catholic university needs to really have its students encounter the gritty reality of life. Well, the gritty reality of life is all about stories.”
One of the programs that Purcell is most proud of is a project working with 21 socioeconomically diverse Catholic high schools in Los Angeles—involving SCU staff and alumni to counsel students who otherwise might not even imagine it was possible to study at Santa Clara.
“That first class graduated in 2013; 18 out of 19 of those students graduated in four years. Some went to law school. I got an email from one today. She’s in Texas, working at an alternative school for the learning disabled. I’m so proud of the students who got that Santa Clara education that made it possible for them to do great things for the world.”
A Jesuit, Catholic university needs to really have its students encounter the gritty reality of life. Well, the gritty reality of life is all about stories.
Martin Sanchez ’02 helped run the program early on. As Purcell tells it, “One day, he gets a phone call from a student that he’s following up with. She hadn’t filed a FAFSA, the federal form for financial aid. So he says, ‘How come?’ She says, ‘I can’t file a FAFSA. My parents are undocumented.’”
Sanchez called the agency that controls FAFSA and asked how to fill out the form if one’s parents are undocumented. He was told, “Just put all zeroes in the Social Security codes.” The FAFSA went through. The student obtained a Pell Grant and was able to come to Santa Clara.
A LITTLE CONTEXT
Purcell stepped down as vice president in 2009 but stayed on until last year as a special assistant to the president. In that role he worked to support the Jesuit School of Theology—which has special meaning for him. “When I studied theology, the only people in the classroom were seminarians studying to be ordained. At the Jesuit School of Theology, not only is it more than half not Jesuits, but it’s laymen and women studying for an ecclesiastical degree that will help them serve the Church and the world. And the way they teach theology there, they talk about contextualizing the understanding of theology—a faith that’s lived in a culture.”
For Purcell, part of living has meant becoming a father and grandfather. He and Bernie celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary in April 2017. After 25 years in Fremont, they now live in Los Gatos. Their son, Larry, is married and is the head of a middle school in Palo Alto. Their daughter, Jamalle, lives with her husband and their four boys in Southern California. “Her name is Arabic,” Purcell notes. “It means beautiful inside and out.”
Purcell may no longer have an official post at SCU, but along with playing a little golf and strumming guitar for his grandkids, he is still involved with the Society of Jesus. He was part of the task force advising the two provincials about the joining of the California and Oregon provinces. And he has helped John A. Sobrato ’60 and the recently opened Cristo Rey High School in San Jose with mentoring its director of development.
For Santa Clara, he’s also looking forward to seeing how STEM education takes shape. “Fundamentally, it’s about interdisciplinary learning—the whole understanding of what it means to be a human being in today’s world. Take the issue of sustainability: That’s an interdisciplinary issue.”
Some years ago, Purcell wrote a piece for this magazine in which he quoted Microsoft founder Bill Gates on how we need both compassion and science. “To me, that’s what Fr. Kolvenbach means by educated solidarity,” he says. “We have a great chance to do that here at Santa Clara. It’s about figuring out how to ask the right questions.”
Read Jim Purcell’s essay “Words Simple and Profound.”