Born in New Albany on July 20, 1892, Joseph Elmer Ritter is the best known of the religious leaders with roots in New Albany. Ritter served as Archbishop of St. Louis from 1946-1962 and as a Cardinal from 1962-1965. During that time, he advocated for African American equality and civil rights. Ritter also became the first American bishop to direct a Catholic mission in Latin America. As a native of southern Indiana, Ritter assumed a prominent role in the religious, cultural, and political life of the lower Midwest.
On May 30, 1917, the Diocese of Indianapolis ordained Ritter as a priest. The following day, Ritter returned to St. Mary of the Annunciation at 415 East Eighth Street to lead his first mass. Ritter received his first parish in July, when he was transferred to St. Patrick Church in Indianapolis. Ritter remained in Indianapolis for decades. He became bishop of the city in 1934 and was elevated to archbishop in 1944.
In October 1946, Ritter became the first archbishop of St. Louis. A year later, he desegregated five of the city’s Catholic high schools. When confronted by white parents who supported segregation, Ritter threatened them with “the serious penalty of excommunication.” Ritter established a diocesan mission in Bolivia, the first mission in Latin America directed by an American Catholic bishop. On January 19, 1961, Pope John XXIII promoted Ritter to cardinal at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. From 1962-65, Cardinal Ritter served during the Second Vatican Council as a leader of progressive reforms in the Catholic Church. Ritter died on June 10, 1967. He is buried in St. Louis Cavalry Cemetery.
In 2009, the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation began renovating Ritter’s childhood home at 1218 East Oak Street. The site includes a memorial rose garden and a museum that chronicles Ritter’s achievements. The Ritter family opened a bakery at the location in the 1870s and attached a house around 1890. Ritter attended school at St. Mary of the Annunciation in New Albany. He reportedly decided to become a priest in the seventh grade.