The land where the Jesuits embraced modernity

(Catholic Herald) In a letter of 1850 the Swiss Jesuit John Bapst declared that “the United States is the freest country in the world”. Bapst had only arrived in America two years earlier but was already convinced that he could “establish here as many schools as I can wish, and no one will interfere with me”. He even envisaged preaching “the doctrine of the Catholic religion in the most Protestant town before an audience composed entirely of Protestants, and I feel sure that I would not suffer a single interruption”.

As John McGreevy explains in his splendid new book, such hopes would quickly be dashed. Bapst set up his devotional stall in Ellsworth, Maine, where he objected, quite reasonably, to Catholic children being made to read from the King James Bible. The local education board was unimpressed by the protest, so Bapst established a Catholic school in the town.

Before too long, the windows of the priest’s home were being smashed and a chapel was being blown up with gunpowder. In October 1854, Bapst was seized by a group of locals and tied to a rail. Some of his assailants suggested burning him alive: instead, he was stripped naked then tarred and feathered. The First Amendment’s promises of religious freedom counted for little on that terrible autumn evening.

Of course, not every Jesuit who travelled from Europe to the US during the 19th century encountered a rabid mob, but they still faced challenges aplenty. A recurrent headache was how to react to a nation that positioned itself as a cradle of progress. What to make of democracy, the separation of church and state, or the prizing of the individual over the communal? [More]


Catholic Herald