On Saturday, March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, I had the great privilege of making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Victory Basilica, in Lackawanna, New York. It was a journey I have made dozens of times through the years. It was similar to those trips made in simpler times, when my father would take us for a Sunday drive and, at least once a year, we would end up at Our Lady of Victory. This trip, however, was very special.
Father Nelson Baker, a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, who died in 1936, has been declared “Venerable” by the Church. This is the first step in recognizing the virtuous life of a person and indicating that the person is now a candidate for sainthood. On Jan. 14, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI publicly announced that the life and virtue of Father Baker were worthy of emulation by the faithful.
Who was Father Baker? Nelson Henry Baker was born in 1842 in Buffalo. His father was Lutheran and his mother was Catholic. Father Baker was originally baptized as a Lutheran. His mother’s strong faith led him into the Catholic Church. As an adult he worked for a time in his father’s grocery and seed store, but was dissatisfied and thought there must be more in life. Nelson eventually entered Our Lady of the Angels Seminary at Niagara University and was ordained a priest on St. Joseph’s Day in 1876.
Father Baker’s first assignment was to assist in St. Patrick’s Parish in Limestone Hill, which later became Lackawanna. A struggling orphanage was associated with the parish. Father Baker did his best to help the pastor and the Sisters of St. Joseph in strengthening the financial position of the parish and orphanage. After five years, he was assigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Corning, New York which was then part of the Diocese of Buffalo. Then, in three years, he was assigned once again to Limestone Hill to serve at the struggling parish and institutions. Father Baker would remain there for the rest of his life.
Long before it was popular, or as easily accomplished as it is today, Father Baker initiated a direct mail campaign to ask for assistance. He began by obtaining, from various postmasters, the names and addresses of people throughout the country. He would write to these people, tell them about his work and invite them to join him in an Association of Our Lady of Victory for a quarter.
With this money, Father Baker supported and sustained those already under his care. He expanded the facilities into a city of charity and became known as the “Padre of the Poor.” He enlarged the orphanage, founded a maternity hospital which later became Our Lady of Victory Hospital, began a home for unwed mothers and their babies, established a protectory for young men and founded a working boys’ home for older adolescents.
At the age of 85, Father Baker began his crowning work, the building of the National Shrine to Our Lady of Victory, who was his personal patron and protector throughout the course of his life. This magnificent Church opened in 1926, and was consecrated and declared a basilica at that time.
Father Baker also served as the Vicar General of the Diocese of Buffalo for over 30 years. At the time of his death in July of 1936, over 100,000 people filed past his casket, lined the streets at his funeral and paid tribute to him.
While the Church has not yet officially declared him a saint, most people in Buffalo, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, through the years have always spoken of Father Baker as a saint. The institutions that he founded continue to serve people today. The infant home now cares for severely handicapped children. Young people in need of supervision are helped at Baker Hall. The hospital has been reborn as an institution that cares for the aging. The parish remains active with about 2000 families and a large parochial school. Pilgrims still come in even greater numbers than before. They do so to pay tribute to Our Lady of Victory, but also to honor Father Baker.
For me personally, this truly was a day that the Lord had made. As I drove home to Syracuse, I relived the event that just took place but even more so the long association I have had with the Basilica and the institutions of Father Baker as a pilgrim, suppliant, visitor, and board member. I gave thanks to God for the wonderful priests, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the lay faithful who have enhanced his work and continue to carry on the works of Father Baker. Here at these institutions all life is sacred from the first moment of conception until the moment of natural death.
I also marveled at the amazing good that one priest can do. I thought of the fine work of our priests here at home in the Diocese of Syracuse — who on a day-to-day basis serve the needs of our people in parishes and institutions. They do so, perhaps not in the extraordinary manner of Father Baker, but nevertheless in a very real and personal way. They serve faithfully the needs of God’s people and respond to God’s call to holiness of life.
On my recent pilgrimage to Our Lady of Victory Basilica I saw the example of the Sisters of St. Joseph, many of whom had dedicated their lives to the works at Our Lady of Victory and similar ministries. I saw women religious and men from various communities and congregations gathered to pay tribute to this man but all working in their own unique way to fulfill the vocation that God had given them. I saw also dozens of priests, many with whom I had studied. And I marveled at all that God had done through Father Baker. Father Baker serves to remind us of the dedicated religious workers that have served our people down through the years.
So many of our young people are interested in making a difference. They are dedicated to serving others, and many do that within the embrace of the Church. Others may not realize the opportunities given to young people within the Church to be of service. I pray that they will be open to dedicate their lives to the service of God.
I close this column with Father Baker’s favorite prayer and with a prayer for his canonization.
Father Baker’s favorite prayer:
O Victorious Lady! Thou who has such powerful influence with Thy Divine Son, in conquering the hardest of hearts, intercede for those for whom we pray, that their hearts being softened by the rays of Divine Grace, they may return to the unity of the true faith, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for the canonization of Father Baker:
Lord you gave us Your servant Nelson Baker as an example of service to the poor, homeless, and young. By Father Baker’s ardent concern for those in need, inflame our hearts and lives with compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, hope for the troubled, and courage to those in doubt. We pray through the intercession of Our Lady of Victory, if it be your will, that your servant, Nelson Baker, may one day be canonized. Amen.