The Francis X. Weninger Digital Collection was compiled from records in the Chicago Province Collection and the Missouri Province Collection of the Midwest Jesuit Archives.
Susan X. Blakely (d. 1910/1911) worked on the material in the early twentieth century and translated and transcribed several of Weninger’s works including his Memoirs. Jesuit Murtha J. Boylan (d.1954) traveled from Rome to Germany and across the United States collecting notes for a Weninger biography that remained unfinished upon his death. Jesuit Henry H. Regnet (d. 1979) worked with the Blakely and Boylan contributions to create a biography that also was not published.
Francis Xavier Weninger (1805-1888) was born in Marburg, Styria, a province in southern Austria, to a prominent Catholic family. He had connections to the old aristocracy of Austria through his mother, Barbara von Mendelstein, and lived for a time on a large estate with his family. Weninger spent much of his youth in Vienna, where he attended the local high school and dreamed of enlisting in the military. However, his father disapproved of this goal, and instead sent the young Weninger to work as an apprentice at a pharmacy in Laybach.
With the permission of his guardian and the director of his high school, Weninger continued his studies independently, and his progress in the academic world soon caught the attention of the Habsburg Court. In 1821, on the recommendation of the director, Empress Carolina Augusta of Austria agreed to sponsor Weninger’s education, and he entered the Klinkowstöm Institute and the University of Vienna to continue his academic work. At the age of seventeen, having spent two years studying philosophy and the classics, Weninger became convinced that he should become a priest. He began studying dogmatic and moral theology and was ordained a priest in 1827. In 1829 he earned a doctorate of divinity at the Episcopal Seminary at Gratz, and began teaching dogmatic theology at the University of Gratz. For the first few years after his ordination, Weninger associated with the Benedictines, Camaldolese, and the Franciscans. He eventually entered the Society of Jesus in 1832.
Weninger worked for several years in Austria and Germany, teaching and preaching throughout the region, at one point even serving as confessor to the Duchess de Berri, the exiled queen of France. However, the 1848 expulsion of the Jesuits due to the revolution in Germany brought Weninger to the United States. He landed in New York, preaching his first American sermon at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Williamsburg, and then traveled to Saint Louis to confer with the Superior of the Missouri Mission about his usefulness in the western territories.
Weninger traveled extensively throughout the country; an entry in Weninger’s obituary notes that “nearly every part of the country was to feel the effects of his grace-laden mission-tours.” Between 1850 and 1860, Weninger preached in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Washington D.C., and various locations across Canada. During this period, worshippers at a mission in the town of Guttenberg, Iowa, experienced, during a visit from Weninger, a vision of a white cross in the sky, which became a well-known event in the Society of Jesus. The primary goal of these missions was conversion, but Weninger also spoke out forcefully against German radicals and the Know-Nothing political party, groups which were gaining popularity during the 1850s.
Weninger was residing in the Midwestern portion of the United States when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He spoke out against the politics of the situation, both the Republican bullying of the United States government and the permission of slave-holding in the Confederate states, which was a unique political position to hold at the time. He continued his missionary work in the Union states of Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Iowa, and Minnesota, where he conducted retreats and gave sermons.
Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Weninger conducted over ninety-five missions and retreats, traveling to California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington Territory, Vancouver, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, and Arkansas. He also conducted an examination of the relics of Peter Claver. After returning to the Midwest in 1871, Weninger continued his routine of missionary work across the country, preaching in many states until, around 1880, his health forced him to limit the amount of traveling in which he could participate. However, he did not stop his work completely. During the late 1870s and early1880s, he began working toward the improvement of the religious practices of African Americans and began pushing for the canonization of Saint Peter Claver. He retired to Cincinnati around 1882, where he died in 1888 at the age of 82.
Weninger’s writings during his life time were extensive and varied across a wide spectrum of topics, including, but not limited to, scripture commentaries, works on canon law, sermons, mission techniques, and musical compositions. These works had a great impact their readers, as shown in a letter that was sent in memoriam by a Jewish man from New Orleans. In the letter, he writes:
“To my sincere sorrow, I read in to-day’s paper of the demise of Fr. Weninger of Cincinnati. Not having had the pleasure of knowing him personally, I have learned to love him from studying some of his works, and it was for some time a favorite idea of mine, when passing through Cincinnati, to call on him and that him for the great spiritual benefit I derived by perusing his books. His picture is hanging over my desk, and if the prayers of a poor sinful Hebrew convert, whom by his writings he has helped by to find again the true and only way that leads to salvation, are acceptable toward the repose of his soul, I will thus try and show him my gratitude.”
“Father Weninger,” Woodstock Letters 18, no. 1 (1889): 123.