James Purdy, 99, Episcopal priest in S.J.

James Elliott Purdy had been rector in Merchantville.
James Elliott Purdy had been rector in Merchantville.
Posted: January 09, 2013

The Rev. Canon James Elliott Purdy, 99, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New Jersey for 74 years, died Sunday, Jan. 6, at the Evergreens, a continuing care community in Moorestown.

Canon Purdy formally retired in 1984 after serving as rector of Grace Church in Merchantville for 18 years. But he never left the ministry that defined his life. Until recently, he assisted in weekly worship at the Evergreens chapel, and provided a 24/7 listening post for fellow residents in need of his counsel - not to mention the healing power of his jokes.

"He touched people's lives with his attentive listening, but also with his easy humor," said his son, the Rev. James H. Purdy, also an Episcopal priest. "He had a thousand jokes, all kind of corny. But they made people happy."

James Elliott Purdy was to the priesthood born. His father was a physician and a clergyman who practiced lifesaving and soul-saving in the Carbon County, Pa., borough of Lansford and later in the Pemberton area. Two of his sons, James Elliott and Samuel, also chose the higher road.

After graduating from Lansford High School in 1932 and Bishop's University in Quebec in 1936, Canon Purdy attended General Theological Seminary in New York. In 1938, he was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and went straight to Scranton as priest in charge at St. John's Church.

Canon Purdy would not remain a Pennsylvanian for long. By 1939, he was rector of Grace Church in Trenton. By 1941 - the year he married the former Eloise Hughes - he was in Camden at St. John's.

His first assignment of any duration was at Christ Church in Bordentown, from 1943 to 1966. His humor showed itself even in the sermons, his son said.

"I can recall Dad proclaiming, 'As an acclaimed person once said,' and, of course, Mom and I and the whole congregation know that he was that person," he recalled.

In 1958, Canon Purdy was seated as an honorary canon of Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, and four years later received the Diocesan Medal of Honor.

From 1966 to 1984, he was rector of Grace Church.

By the time he retired, he had presented 14 young men for ordination. He also claimed to have sat on every commission of the 14-county diocese in central and Southern New Jersey.

At various points in his career, he was chaplain at Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, president of the Ecumenical Religious Leaders Conference of New Jersey, and chaplain of the Niagara Fire Company in Merchantville. He was a member, and occasional president, of Rotary Clubs in Bordentown and Pennsauken, and the Lions Club in Trenton.

"He was a diamond of many facets," his son said.

Indeed, he wielded a wicked buzz saw.

Chief among his many hobbies was carpentry. Earlier in his life, he built power boats, motoring them around lakes in Nova Scotia. After he and his wife moved to the Evergreens in the late 1990s, he crafted large furniture pieces such as cabinets for the public rooms and built-ins for the residents, as well as doll furniture for his grandchildren.

Canon Purdy was widowed in 2009, but he had every intention of hitting the century mark, his son said. Until only recently, that seemed entirely possible. At 98, he finally got a scooter, though he was not entirely happy with it.

"This is not acceptable," his son recalled him complaining. "You must make it go faster."

In addition to his son and brother, Canon Purdy is survived by two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.

A service of thanksgiving will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, in the Episcopal Chapel at the Evergreens, 309 Bridgeboro Rd., Moorestown, with private interment in Greenwood Cemetery, Trenton.


Contact Kathleen Tinney at 610-313-8106.

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