Ninety years ago this year, John Bapst High School opened in Bangor — named for Johannes Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit priest who came to Maine in the 1840s, oversaw the building of Bangor’s first Catholic Church, and later became the first president of Boston College.
That’s his abbreviated story.
The full story sets the priest at the center of an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant fervor that swept the nation in the 1850s. The story ends up with Bapst tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail — literally.
For the physical pain he suffered, the resilience he showed in pushing forward and the impact Bapst had on the Bangor area, nearly 70 years later they named a high school after him.
His namesake school may be the only thing people know about Bapst. Some people think the high school is named after John the Baptist, but that’s not the case — Bapst lived, worked and was remembered by many in eastern Maine.
“A lot of people know [Bapst] because of the school … but they don’t have a clue about where he came from, or why it happened, or all the things that were happening nationally that led to it,” Dick Shaw, a Bangor historian, said. “[Bapst] was walking into a snake pit when he came to Maine at that time.”
Bapst was ordained a priest in his native Switzerland in 1846, at age 31. Two years later, he landed in New York and was sent to Maine, eventually becoming priest for a territory stretching from Waterville to Machias — that’s how few Catholics were living at the time in Maine.
Catholics were coming, however, as the great influx of Irish immigrants was arriving in the U.S., in the wake of the potato famine. Tensions began to flare between the native-born Protestants and the new immigrants. Nationally, an insurgent political party dubbed the American Party — the “Know-Nothing” party — formed in the late 1840s, primarily driven by anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiments.
The party’s platform included limiting Catholic immigration, not allowing immigrants to run for office and enacting a 20-year waiting period for them to be granted citizenship. New England states were among the strongest Know-Nothing areas in the country, with party members elected to office across the region.
Know-Nothing gangs threatened violence against Catholics in towns all over Maine. Secret societies aligned with the party were formed, to promote conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church — spawning the nickname “Know-Nothing” in reference to members’ instructions to say “I know nothing” when asked about their party affiliation.
“The Know-Nothing movement was particularly virulent up here,” Shaw said. “And things certainly escalated in eastern Maine.”
In 1853, Bapst was based in Ellsworth. The Catholic families in the area objected to their children being forced to read the Protestant Bible in public schools, and Bapst went before the Ellsworth school board to ask that they be allowed to read the Catholic Bible instead.
The school board — mostly Know-Nothing sympathizers — rejected him. In November 1853, Catholic children in public schools were expelled for refusing to read the Protestant Bible.
Angry letters about the expulsion were published in the Bangor Whig and Courier and the Ellsworth Herald. In June 1854, a Know-Nothing mob descended on Bapst’s Ellsworth rectory aiming to assault the priest, and when Bapst wasn’t there, they broke all the windows instead.
At that point, Bapst was told by his bishop to leave Ellsworth and move to Bangor. It was good timing, on his part: a week after Bapst left, a makeshift bomb was set off at the Catholic schoolhouse, nearly destroying the building.
At a July 8 town meeting in Ellsworth, the Know-Nothing faction took over the meeting. They voted to ban Bapst from town, officially proclaiming they would assist him in “trying on an entire suit of new clothes such as cannot be found at the shops of any taylor (sic); and that when thus apparelled, he be presented with a fine ticket to leave Ellsworth upon the first railroad operation that may go into effect.”
A week later, on July 15, the Know-Nothings tried to burn down the still-under-construction Catholic Church in Ellsworth, but they were unsuccessful. After that, the fervor seemed to die down. On Saturday, Oct. 14, 1854, Bapst decided to try to quietly stop into Ellsworth again.
On his way to an appointment in Cherryfield, Bapst stopped for the night to stay at a former parishioner’s house in Ellsworth. Someone tipped off the Know-Nothings, and they assembled near the old Post Office before marching — supposedly 500 strong — up Main Street to the house where Bapst was staying.
The mob rousted Bapst out of his cellar hiding spot, tore off his clothes and dragged him into the woods. Accounts vary as to what exactly happened next, but the story that has survived maintains that Bapst was tied to a tree, beaten, coated in hot tar and covered in feathers. The mob taunted and insulted him, threatened to hang him, and reportedly stole his wallet. Then, as promised, they “rode him on a rail” to the town wharf and left him for dead.
He regained consciousness during the night and was rescued by some of his parishioners, covered in severe burns over much of his body. Bapst reportedly delivered Mass the next day, and on Monday was driven back to Bangor. Though the attorney general investigated the incident, which scandalized newspapers from Bangor to Boston, no charges were ever filed. Bapst never set foot in Ellsworth again.
Bapst stayed in Bangor for another five years. Near the end of 1854, he laid the cornerstone for St. John’s Catholic Church on York Street, underneath which was set a vial containing a tarred, bloodied feather from his terrible ordeal.
According to its 1972 application to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, the church was built primarily by Irish laborers, many of whom stood guard when work was done for the day, to protect the site against gangs of Know-Nothings who threatened to burn it down.
“I think the church was, in part, a tribute to him, and all the pain he suffered,” Shaw said.
By 1857, the Know-Nothing fervor had declined, due to election losses, and splits within the party on the issue of slavery — all of which would lead up to the Civil War. It was just one of many nativist movements to take root in the U.S., be it anti-Chinese sentiment at the turn of the century, anti-Jewish sentiment in the 1920s, or the anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim sentiment of today.
In 1859, Bapst was sent to Boston, where in 1863 he was named the first p resident of Boston College during its inaugural school year, a position he held for six years. He later became Superior for Jesuits in Canada and New York, before dying at the age of 71 in 1887.
Bapst’s legend lived on well past his death — from the church he helped build, to the high school that bears his name, to the library at Boston College that also bears his name, to the legacy of Irish Americans and other immigrants in eastern Maine.
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