Capel, Thomas John (1836–1911), catholic priest, was born 28 October 1836 in Ardmore, Co. Waterford, the second child and eldest son of John Capel and his wife Mary (née Fitzgerald). He settled with his family in Hastings, Sussex, following his father's appointment to the coastguard service. Assisted in his education by a tractarian convert to catholicism, Father J. M. Glennie, he helped to found St Mary's normal college at Hammersmith in 1851, where he acted as principal and received a teaching certificate in 1853. Though he never attended a seminary, he studied for the priesthood while teaching at the normal school from 1854 onwards. His ordination took place on 28 August 1859.
In 1863 poor health led to his moving to Pau, France. There he opened a mission for English-speaking catholics, and served as its chaplain until 1867. He soon began to earn a reputation for his conversions. On his return to England, he settled at Danesfield in Buckinghamshire, where he became chaplain to Charles Scott Murray (patron of E. W. Pugin (qv)) whose acquaintance he had made in France. He became the spiritual director of John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd marquess of Bute, who had been raised a presbyterian, and was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. As a result, Capel visited Oxford regularly throughout 1868 and, owing to his persuasive charm and gifts as a preacher, his sermons were so well attended that the dean of Christ Church became concerned at his following among undergraduates. On 8 December 1868 came Capel's most notable triumph, the widely publicised conversion of Bute at the chapel of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Southwark, which resulted in his later depiction as Monsignor Catesby in Disraeli's novel Lothair (1870).
Capel accompanied Bute as his private chaplain on a cruise to Palestine, which included a stay in Rome where the two men were granted a private audience with Pope Pius IX. Appointed a private chamberlain to Pius IX in 1868, Capel was given the title monsignor and, on his return to London, served in the pro-cathedral at Kensington. There he established a reputation as a popular preacher among London's social elite; he was a successful proselytiser among the aristocracy and was in great demand for society weddings and funerals. At Bute's wedding in 1872 he celebrated the nuptial mass while Cardinal Manning solemnised the marriage. He became a domestic prelate in 1873, the year he also founded the Kensington catholic public school.
In 1874, with Capel's influence and popularity at its height, Cardinal Manning had him appointed rector of the new Catholic University at Kensington, which opened in January 1875. Manning hoped that Capel's prestige would attract the sons of the aristocracy to the university, but the appointment proved disastrous. Capel showed little interest in the foundation and, despite stipulations from the bishops, always gave primary attention to his public school and his plans to set up a catholic college in London, for which he floated a company to secure funds. By 1878, when it became clear that the college was in severe financial difficulties, Capel was forced to resign. Although it was subsequently found he had not kept accounts during his tenure, he claimed and received £4,000 as compensation for the money he had put into the college. Soon afterwards his own school collapsed with a debt of £28,000.
It would appear that Capel's popularity with the aristocracy was by then on the wane, as the Manchester Guardian of April 1879 referred to the ‘grave differences’ that had arisen between him and the marquess of Bute. Added to his problems were the allegations that he had been involved in a relationship with a young woman. Suspended from his office as priest in the diocese of Westminster, he successfully appealed the decision in Rome in 1882. With Manning unwilling nonetheless to see him return to London, he lectured for some time in Florence, before moving to the USA in 1883. Capel's career as a priest ended on 6 February 1887 with the passing of a universal decree suspending him from the right to say mass and administer the sacraments. He finally settled in California, where his life was said to be comfortable, and died 23 October 1911 in the home of Thomas Grace, bishop of Sacramento. Throughout his career he produced numerous religious pamphlets, among them A reply to Gladstone's ‘Vaticanism’ (1874) and Great Britain and Rome, or, Ought the queen of England to hold diplomatic relations with the sovereign pontiff? (1882).