History: Johannes Bapst, SJ

by Chris Canniff


Johannes Bapst was born in Switzerland a few days before Christmas in 1815.  At the age of 20, he entered the Jesuit novitiate, and after eleven years of formation, he was ordained a priest on New Year’s Eve in 1846.  Two years later, he was missioned to the United States.  His assignment took him to Old Town, Maine, which is thirteen miles north of Bangor.  At the time, the Vatican still officially classified the United States as mission territory, and it was Fr. Bapst who was sent to minister to the few Catholics who lived scattered across that region and to evangelize the Native American communities there as well.

Living in this predominantly Protestant and pagan social setting, Fr. Bapst had his work cut out for him.  Nearly thirty-five miles south in the town of Ellsworth, issues arose for Catholic students who were being forced to use a Protestant translation of the Bible in their public school.  Fr. Bapst advocated on behalf of these Catholic students who, on the grounds of their religious liberty, had a right to use a Catholic Bible translation.  When the school board responded to Fr. Bapst’s plea by expelling the Catholic students, Fr. Bapst sued the school district.  The town committee then passed a resolution banishing him from Ellsworth on threat of severe punishment.


On the night of October 14, 1854, Fr. Bapst did return to Ellsworth to minister to the Catholics there in defiance of the town’s resolution against him.  Members of the local Know Nothing Party, an anti-Catholic political party prominent in 19th-century America, enacted a medieval punishment against the priest.  Fr. Bapst was tarred and feathered and subsequently run out of town on a rail.  When he bravely returned to the town the following Sunday to celebrate Mass, several of his parishioners gathered around the chapel with pitchforks to protect Fr. Bapst from further retaliation.


Protestant citizens of Bangor repudiated the actions of the people in Ellsworth, and one democratic politician took Fr. Bapst into his house and vowed to defend him with his life.  As far away as New York City, non-Catholics spoke out against the Know Nothing movement’s violent actions against the Jesuit.


The remainder of Fr. Bapst’s time in Maine was peaceful, and he oversaw the building of the first Catholic Church in Bangor.  After three years, he was sent to Boston.


Fr. Bapst was named the first president of Boston College when the school opened in 1863.  Located on Harrison Avenue in Boston’s South End, the school served boys from age 11 until roughly 18.  After six years running Boston College, Bapst was promoted and served as the Superior for Jesuits in Canada and New York.  Following a brief time living in Rhode Island, he moved to Maryland where he passed away at the age of 71.


After BC had relocated to Chestnut Hill in the early 20th century, several gothic buildings were constructed on the new campus.  The library, built in stages over a period of years, opened in 1928 and was the fourth building on the campus.  It was named in honor of Boston College’s first president, the Swiss Jesuit missionary who brought the sacraments to the People of God even at great cost to himself.

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