Father John Bapst, S.J.: An Evangelist Among the Know Nothings

In June 1854 one of the fiercest outbursts of anti-Catholicism in American history began in Ellsworth, Maine.  The victim was Father John Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit who nearly lost his life at the hands of a secret, anti-Catholic organization called the Know Nothings.

Bapst had left his homeland in 1848 because of a religious civil war there.  When the Protestant cantons overwhelmed the Catholic regions of Switzerland, Bapst and nearly 100 other Jesuits fled the country.  Upon his arrival in New York, Bapst sought out the Jesuit superior who sent him to northern Maine to minister to the Penobscot tribe.  Bapst quickly set about learning both English and the Penobscot language.  Over the following three years, he worked to promote temperance among the Indians and was able to reconcile rival factions of the tribe.

John-BapstIn 1851 the bishop of Boston, John Fitzpatrick, decided to transfer Bapst to other towns in northern Maine.  He sent him first to Eastport and shortly thereafter to Ellsworth where Bapst would work principally with Irish and Canadian immigrants.  Concerned about providing proper educational opportunities for his congregants, Bapst was soon drawn into the battle over Bible reading in the public schools which had been ongoing for more than a decade in much of the northeast.  In testimony before the Ellsworth School Committee, Bapst proposed that Catholic schoolchildren be exempted from reading the King James Bible in school as that was not the version of the Bible that Catholics used.  While the School Committee rejected the priest’s recommendation, Bapst’s intervention nevertheless left local Know Nothings in a rage. (Know Nothings got their name from telling outsiders that they “knew nothing” about the society’s inner workings.)  Know Nothing leaders concluded that Bapst was really trying to ban the Bible from Maine’s public schools and thus had to be stopped.

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In June 1854 Bapst’s housekeeper learned that a plot was afoot to kidnap him.  She warned him and Bapst left the town and was then transferred by the bishop to a parish in Bangor.  In July, nativists smashed several of the windows of the Catholic church in Ellsworth and tried unsuccessfully to burn it down.  In October Bapst had to travel from Bangor to a town near Ellsworth so he decided to spend a night in the town and celebrate Mass the following morning at his former parish.  When word reached the Know Nothings of Bapst’s impending return, they determined to try again to kidnap him.  This time they were successful.  A gang surrounded the house where Bapst was staying and forced the family to turn him over.  They then stripped him naked and tarred and feathered him.  After beating him severely, they left him unconscious on one of the town’s wharves.

When Bapst regained consciousness, he found some matting to cover himself and then he wandered in a daze into the center of town.  A group of Catholics found him and cleaned him up and returned him to the home where he had planned to stay.  The next morning Bapst celebrated Mass in the church as he had promised.  The following day he returned to Bangor, where Catholics and Protestants alike were infuriated when they learned of the attack.  News of the deed spread quickly.  In Boston, The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper, declared the attack a “dastardly outrage.”

Under pressure from many Maine residents, especially the citizens of Bangor, the state Attorney General eventually agreed to launch an investigation.  After conducting a half-hearted inquiry, he announced that he was unable to determine who was responsible and so no charges were ever filed.

Bapst remained in Bangor for five years and flourished there; most residents appreciated him.  Before departing, Bapst established a new Catholic parish there.    In 1860 he was transferred to Boston, where he enjoyed equal success.   At first, he was supervising the Jesuit scholastics.  In 1863, however, he was appointed the first president of Boston College and served there until 1869.  Today one of the college’s library buildings is named in his honor.

By 1877, Bapst was in Providence, serving as rector of the Jesuit community at St. Joseph’s Church.  Rhode Island’s bishop, Thomas Hendricken, was hoping that the Jesuits would establish a college like the ones they had set up in Boston and Worcester (the College of the Holy Cross).  The bishop’s desire was that Bapst would be able to add a boys’ high school to the existing grammar school in the parish and eventually add on a college for young men.  Bapst was not able to work on this project for long, though.  By 1879, although only in his early sixties, he started exhibiting signs of dementia.  Bapst’s confreres were certain that the trauma that he had suffered in Ellsworth had literally come back to haunt him.  He experienced increasingly intense nightmares and would shout that his attackers were coming in the window to get him.

Fathers Robert Lord, John Sexton and Edward Harrington aptly described this heroic priest’s final days in their History of the Archdiocese of Boston: “Once more he was in the hands of his persecutors.  The horror would engulf him.  Finally in terrific mental agony, he would have to seek the protecting presence of one of his fellow Jesuits.  Thus, after a lifetime of bodily sacrifices, he finally sacrificed his mind to the cause of Christ.”


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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