John Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit priest, arrived in New York City in 1848 just as Know Nothing bigotry gathered force in the Northeast. He spoke no English, and he was sent to the wilds of Maine to minister to Penobscot Indians, whose language he also didn’t speak. Father Bapst would survive a tar-and-feathering in Ellsworth, Maine, earn the respect of Maine Catholics and Protestants and become the first president of Boston College.
Throughout his successful career, the trauma of that night in Ellsworth never left him. In the end, it overtook him.
He was born Dec. 17, 1815, in Fribourg, Switzerland, and at 19 began studying to be a Jesuit priest. He was ordained a priest in 1846 at the age of 31. Two years later he left Switzerland.
When Father John Bapst set foot in New York, bigotry was rampant. Prejudice was aimed especially at Irish immigrants and Jesuit priests. The Know Nothing Party had begun to manifest itself 14 years earlier, when its members burned and pillaged an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass. The Know Nothings published anti-Jesuit pamphlets and novels, including one featuring an evil order of female Jesuits and another featuring a Jesuit who kidnaps and murders an innocent woman.
Father Bapst’s superiors ordered him to Old Town to minister to the Penobscot Indians. Bapst had qualms about the assignment: He didn’t speak the Penobscot language and 10 of his predecessors had been killed. But he mastered the languages, started a temperance society and established peace between two warring parties. When a cholera epidemic broke out, he tended the sick.
His mission expanded to include the Irish and Canadian Catholics in Maine. In 1850, he moved to Eastport and in 1853 to Bangor. He preached, formed temperance societies and converted Protestants to Catholicism.
His territory included Winterport, Rockland, Thomaston, Ellsworth, Machias and Eastport.
In Ellsworth, Father Bapst set up a small Catholic church and school. He also proposed that Catholic students be exempted from reading the King James Bible in school, because that wasn’t the version Catholics used. That enraged the Know Nothings.
The Know Nothings adopted a resolution in Ellsworth, Maine, on July 8, 1854, after they blew up the Catholic school with gunpowder, broken the windows of the rectory and the church, which they then tried to burn down. The resolution said, according to the U.S. Catholic Historical Society:
…if John Bapst, S.J., be found again on Ellsworth soil we will provide for him, and try on an entire suit of new clothes, such as cannot be found at the shops of any tailor, and then when thus appareled he be presented with a free ticket to leave Ellsworth upon the first railroad operation that may go into effect.
Details vary as to what happened on Oct. 14, 1854. The Know Nothings either they found him at the home of a Catholic, a Mr. Kent, or pulled him out of the confessional. Then, according to one version,
they carried him on a sharp rail to a lonely place, stripped him naked, bound him to a tree, having smeared him with tar and feathers. They then piled brush around him and attempted to set it afire, but their matches gave out. The sheriff finally arrived on the scene and dispersed the mob at the point of a pistol.
According to another version, they left him on the wharf. When he came to, he covered himself with matting, wandered in a daze into the center of town. Catholics found him, took him to Mr. Kent’s home and cleaned him up. He celebrated Mass the next day, his supporters guarding him with pitchforks. The day after that he returned to Bangor, where Protestants and Catholics were infuriated by his treatment. Maine’s attorney general made a half-hearted investigation, but no charges were filed.
Bapst stayed in Bangor five years. He established a new Catholic parish and in 1855 laid the cornerstone for St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Bangor Federal Credit Union was founded in the church basement in 1956.
He moved to Massachusetts in 1859 to become the spiritual father of the College of Holy Cross in Worcester. A year later, he was transferred to Boston and appointed scholasticate of Boston College.
He was quite popular in Boston.
Great crowds of Protestants heard his sermons at Immaculate Conception, and he formed a friendship with Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew. Andrew later granted the charter to Boston College. In 1863, Father Bapst was named the first president of the college. He stayed until 1869.
By 1877, he was in Providence, R.I., serving as rector of St. Joseph’s Church. The bishop hoped John Bapst would establish a college there as he had in Boston. Unfortunately, by 1879, Father Bapst began to lose his mind. His colleagues were sure his Ellsworth trauma came back to haunt him. He suffered intense nightmares and screamed his attackers were coming to get him through the window.
Father John Bapst died on Nov. 2, 1887, in Mount Hope, Md. One of the attendants at his deathbed wrote,
As he lay on his bed after receiving the last Sacrament, calm and apparently unconscious of everything on earth, an almost heavenly peace rested on his countenance . . .
Photos: “Bangor Maine” byDenis Santerre. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; “St Joseph Providence” by Marc N Belanger. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; “BC Burns Lawn Sunset” Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.