CINCINNATI — Father James E. Shappelle could have been the model for the Christ-like bishop in “Les Miserables,” who gave two silver candlesticks to the thief Jean Valjean.
That’s according to Dave Evans, a longtime member of St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in Winton Place, where Shappelle was pastor for many years.
“He (Shappelle) would have given the thief all of his candlesticks,” Evans said. “It even got to the point where, in his later years here, the rectory staff had to kind of protect him from himself.
“He would have given everything away,” Evans said.
Shappelle died Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at 91. He had served the Archdiocese of Cincinnati as a priest for 62 years.
Born Aug. 19, 1924 in Cincinnati, he was a cradle Catholic who grew up in Holy Family parish in East Price Hill. Two of his four siblings became Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati. A cousin, Greg Friedman, is a Franciscan priest in the District of Columbia.
Friedman will preach the homily for the Mass of Christian Burial, set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral Downtown. On Friday, he was feeling a bit daunted by the task.
“Jim was very beloved by literally hundreds and hundreds of people,” Friedman said. “I’m so gratified to see how many people were touched in their lives by this man.”
As of Friday afternoon, about a dozen people had paid their respects on the archdiocese’s Facebook page.
“I have known a number of priests but none compare to his commitment to God and his fellow man,” wrote Ann Gaynor. “He was a man who saw many things in his life, yet was blind to color, race, gender, educational level, income level or any other type of classification.”
Shappelle did his preparatory studies for the priesthood at St. Gregory Seminary and studied theology at Mount St. Mary’s of the West in Norwood.
In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2004, Shappelle said, “I’d just turned 14 when I entered the seminary. I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations or goals. The priesthood was a very respectable life for a boy to have. We admired the priests. We looked up to them.”
From 1950 through his retirement in 2012, he served as a teacher and pastor for various parishes (see timeline below). Toward the end of his career, when priests were in short supply, he was called on to lead a couple of parishes at a time.
When the Enquirer interviewed him in 2004, he was 79 and the oldest pastor in the archdiocese. He was overseeing two parishes about a mile apart, St. Bernard in Winton Place and Mother of Christ in Winton Terrace.
“I’m considerably busier now than when I was 24,” he said in that interview. He kept going out of duty and out of fear the archdiocese would close the parishes if he left, he said.
In addition to his pastoral work, Shappelle also served on the board of directors for the Winton Place Youth Center for more than 30 years, St. Bernard Parish office manager Rita Carmosino said.
“He would answer the door to others in need … and help them find help,” she said, or help them himself.
“He was definitely a servant of God and the Church, in Christ’s service,” she added.
Shappelle had a phenomenal memory for the history of the families he served, said longtime Mother of Christ member Glen Glenn. “When he walked into a room, you felt that you were the most important person to him at the moment,” he added.
Even when Shappelle said no, Glenn said, it was “a ‘No’ couched in spiritual correctness and guidance.”
Glenn, who leads the church Gospel choir, credited Shappelle with helping that choir flourish. He was a fan of Gospel music, although he was not a singer.
“We didn’t encourage him to sing that much,” Glenn said.
Parishioners also knew him as an avid bicyclist, who made 50-mile rides even into his 80s. He also fixed up old bicycles and donated them to neighborhood children, Evans said.
He served as a mentor to Friedman, with whom he officiated at many family weddings and funerals. “I took a lot of good ideas from him on how to touch people in a really down-to-earth way,” Friedman said.
“I’m sorry to have to say goodbye to him,” he added. “But I believe wonderful people like Jim are going to be praying for the rest of us.”
Timeline of appointments for Father James Shappelle:Aug. 24, 1948 -- Ordained a priest by Bishop George J. Rehring.1950 – Receives a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum, Rome. Assistant pastor, Sacred Heart, Dayton.1951 – Studies education at Catholic University in Washington, receives master’s degree.1953 – Instructor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Norwood.1957 – Vicar coop pro tem, St. Rita, Dayton. Vicar coop, St. Peter in Chains, Hamilton.1958 – Assistant superintendent of schools, Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Assistant pro-tem, St. Patrick in Troy.1959 – Assistant pastor St. Mary Parish, Greenville. Assistant chaplain, St. Clare Convent. Chaplain, Cincinnati Chapter of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.1962 – Assistant pastor, St. Anthony, Madisonville.1970 – Assistant pastor, St. Leo, Cincinnati. Teacher of religion, Seton High School.1972 – Pastor, St. Leo. Administrator, Our Lady of Presentation Mission.1983 – Associate pastor, St. Bernard, Winton Place and Mother of Christ, Terrace Park.1984 – Becomes pastor of the two parishes.1985 – Dean, Cathedral Deanery2009 – Parochial vicar to the pastor, St. Bernard and St. Leo parishes, while continuing as canonical administrator of Mother of Christ.2012 – Parochial administrator, St. Bernard and Mother of Christ. Retired from active ministry Oct. 1.