Whiskey Man: Johannes Bapst, SJ

This week’s Whiskey Man of the Week is Johannes Bapst, SJ. Fr. Bapst was born in Switzerland in 1815 and at the age of 19 entered the Society of Jesus in Switzerland. After being ordained on New Year’s Eve 1846, he was sent to minister to Native Americans in New England. After two successful years with the Native Americans, he was assigned to serve Catholics throughout Maine.

After his arrival in Eastport, Main in 1850, Fr. Bapst immediately attracted the attention of locals, both for good and for ill. Anti-Catholic sentiment had been on the rise throughout the country, which coincided with an influx of German and Irish Catholic immigrants. Nativists had been worried about what would happen if Catholics moved into Maine, and the arrival of Fr. Bapst caused a hysteria of sorts. Further exacerbating their anger, Fr. Bapst was quite successful in his work. He immediately gained many new converts and ministered to a previously secluded Catholic population in the state.

John Bapst

Eventually, the Nativist anti-Catholic sentiments throughout the country materialized into the Know-Nothing party, which was especially powerful in the state of Maine. Among their stated positions were provisions to prevent Catholics from teaching in public schools and banning the use of all languages except English (which was directed at Catholics). Members of the party in Maine had been looking for scapegoats to blame for the rising population of Catholics, and many figured that Fr. Bapst was the root of the Catholic issue. The hatred of Fr. Bapst eventually boiled into full on assault after Fr. Bapst requested that Catholics in public schools be allowed to use the Douay-Rheims Bible instead of the Protestant King James Version. While Fr. Bapst was in Bangor, the town of Ellsworth banned him from ever setting foot in their town again.

Of course, sheep need a shepherd, so Fr. Bapst had to return to Ellsworth. After successfully celebrating Mass in a home, he was caught by an angry mob. The mob dragged him to the center of town, where he was subsequently tarred and feathered. They then dragged him to a railroad where they sent him away, bound, on the first train out of town.  Fr. Bapst, instead of fleeing the state, immediately returned to guide his flock. He eventually founded the first Catholic Church in Bangor, built in 1856. News of the tarring quickly spread, causing outrage in the lower states. Public opinion began to turn against the Know-Nothing party due to their actions. Even Anti-Catholics acknowledged that what had happened to Fr. Bapst was an outrage.

After spending several more years in Maine, Fr. Bapst was sent south to Massachusetts, where he became the first president of Boston College. After firmly establishing the College in the South End of Boston, he became the Jesuit Superior for all of Canada and New York. He eventually died in 1887 in Maryland.

Fr. Bapst’s life is an example for us all. Despite the hardships and persecutions he encountered in Maine, he persevered in Faith in order to serve God and His Church. His hard work eventually resulted in the broader acceptance of Catholicism in New England and the founding of one of America’s most well-known Catholic Institutions, Boston College.

His memory has been preserved since the founding of Bapst Library at Boston College, which was named in his honor. (Bapst Library was recently named one of the most impressive College Libraries in the world by Travel & Leisure.)

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