Francis Xavier Weninger, S.J., was a learned scholar of theology, history, Hebrew studies, and his oratory skills earned him status as an eloquent public speaker. Born in Austria in 1805, his family maintained noble connections to the old Austrian aristocracy. Originally planning on a military career, Weninger’s father dissuaded him, eventually sending him to Vienna to pursue higher education. After completing his studies at the University of Vienna and the Gratz Episcopal Seminary, Weninger was ordained in 1829 and joined the Society of Jesus in 1832. While serving as a confessor in Innsbruck, the 1848 Revolutions in Germany made Europe hostile for Jesuits and Weninger requested missionary work in the United States’ western territories. In 1848, Weninger arrived in New York and started his missionary work in earnest; at the height of anti-Catholicism and Know-Nothing political influence. Simultaneously during this American nativism in the 1850s, Catholicism experienced a brief period of revivalism that consolidated parish communities. What stimulated this revivalism was the mission effect carried out by newly arrived European missionaries, like Weninger.
The country’s dangerous political and social landscape shaped the Catholic position as a crucial component. Disagreements between Republicans and Democrats permeated Weninger’s memoirs as he criticized many political figures. Weninger refused to join political factions, but he did possess more northern sympathies because he condemned slavery. The biggest ideological clash was with Know-Nothingism and in the 1850s, which during the Civil War would also impact Weninger’s view of politicians’ involvement with the conflict.
Despite such prejudices, Father Weninger conducted an extensive and widespread national mission. He quickly gained notoriety as a public speaker, known for his strict adherence to Catholic doctrine and commitment to local communities. As Weninger continued preaching, his crowds become increasingly integrated with white and blacks attendees. He delivered sermons in German, French, and he delivered his first English sermon to a black audience. Weninger’s missions black missions in St. Louis were pivotal in his career. Along with engaging with the small black community, two miracles associated with Peter Claver, a 16th century Jesuit who ministered to slaves occurred in St. Louis, whereby a terminally ill parishioner was healed through a Peter Claver relic. These miracles signaled Weninger that his support of black evangelization practices were the new focus of his ministry. Weninger conducted few missions in southern states, but he still preached to black congregations in cities such as New Orleans and Jackson, including black baptisms. There is no evidence of segregation or any degree of racial discrimination at any of Weninger’s missions.
The foundation for Weninger’s black advocacy stemmed from his analysis of Southern justification for slavery. What he abhorred was the idea of slavery authorized by Christian practice:
‘They [the South] maintained that slavery is authorized by Holy Writ, that God created a portion of the human race to be under subjection, and that masters should control their servants. So thought the extreme radicals party of the South, and to maintain this principle, they seceded from the Union.” (Francis X. Weninger Papers, Jesuit Archives-Central United States, 201)
The religious conviction of the South condoning slavery vexed Weninger. He maintained that emancipation should occur as there was no theological confirmation of slavery’s acceptance.
Simultaneously, racial ideology over slavery perturbed Weninger and made his own observations. Slaves were not lethargic individuals or lacked basic survival skills, nor did he interpret them as children within the paternalistic slavery ideology. Herein lies the key to Weninger’s black advocacy. Freed slaves could secure a basic education and social standing harnessing their skills and intelligence. The disruption of slave marriages through commerce and physical abuse by white slave owners also offended Weninger. Through his interpretation of marriage, physical separation by commercial means did not dissolve marriages. However, since slave owners saw no legality in slave marriages, this willful separation conflicted with the traditional Catholic institution of marriage. Slavery was flawed in both ecclesiastical and racial contexts, making it an unjustifiable institution. If blacks were granted emancipation and received the necessary attention and education, evangelization potential increased and helped establish black parishes. Weninger saw such possibilities and forthcoming events jettisoned his mission work towards the forefront of black evangelization and parish building; the Civil War.
In the next installment, we’ll look at how Weninger conducted missions during the Civil War and how the conflict’s devastation impacted his theological and social outlook.