With Pope Francis’s canonization of Junípero Serra, O.F.M. here on American soil last month, a quick trivia question comes to mind: who is the only American-born priest who has been canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church?
But this is really a trick question: the answer is “none”. The United States rightfully celebrates St. John Neumann as one of our own; although he was born in Bohemia, he served in Niagara Falls and Buffalo before becoming the Archbishop of Philadelphia. And we do have some outstanding home-grown women saints such as Katherine Drexel, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, and Kateri Tekakwitha—as well as the naturalized St. Frances Mother Cabrini. But no American-born male has yet been canonized.
However, all that may—may—be about to change: former students of Niagara University—one an alum, the other a transfer—have been both declared “Venerable Servants of God”, which puts them merely one step away from being declared “Blessed” (beatified), and just two steps away from the ultimate goal of any Catholic: Sainthood (Canonization).
But perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that both men attended Niagara University’s Our Lady of the Angels Seminary at the exact same time! Indeed, it is even possible that they may have been classmates.
The Right Reverend Monsignor Nelson H. Baker, V.G., P.A.— but universally known simply as “Father Baker”—was the eldest man in his entire class (he had left a lucrative business career to study for the priesthood), entered Niagara University as a seminarian in 1869—after having served in the Civil War-- and finished his course of studies in 1874. His definitive and official story, which I had the distinct pleasure of editing, is told by the noted Church historian, Rev. Richard Gribble, CSC in his book Father of The Fatherless: The Authorized Biography of Father Nelson Baker (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2011).
His Niagara classmate, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, however, had an even farther-reaching effect on the Church: he single-handedly founded the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic laymen’s society that brought life insurance to millions of Catholics who formerly could never afford such a “luxury”. He attended Niagara’s Seminary from fall 1871 through the summer of 1872. Fr. McGivney’s definitive biography was penned by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster, in Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (NY: William Morrow, 2006).
Although both men were “formed” by the Vincentian Priests who were in charge of the diocesan Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Niagara, neither of them apparently aspired to be a member of the Vincentians—or any other religious order—although Fr. McGivney would eventually wind up studying his theology at a Jesuit Seminary in Montreal, and then one run by the Sulpicians in Baltimore. Upon his graduation and ordination, Fr. Baker began a quick and meteoric climb up the ecclesiastical ladder, culminating in his titles of “Prothonotary Apostolic” (a “Monsignor”) and the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Buffalo.
However, the spirit of the Vincentian founder, St. Vincent de Paul—especially that saint’s love for the poor and suffering—is prevalent in both men. Fr. Baker spent his nearly one hundred years (he lived well into the second administration of FDR, who phoned him on his 95th birthday) on this earth serving orphans, abandoned babies, “troubled” youths, the steelworkers of the steel mills of South Buffalo, and black Catholics at a time when it was unpopular, even unheard of.
Fr. McGivney, his life cut tragically short by pneumonia in only his 38th year in 1890, did just one thing that has forever changed the face of American Catholicism: He founded a men’s benevolent association that today boasts nearly two million members. And even more staggeringly: The Knights of Columbus hold $90 billion in life insurance policies, backed by nearly $20 billion in assets. Their life insurance is considered the gold standard in the business, and the proceeds from this business fund the organization’s worldwide charitable programs.
The closer we look at these two Venerable Servants of God, the more different, very different, they seem to be: Fr. Baker, the eldest member of his class, a lifelong Western New York resident, was a member of the drama and singing clubs. Fr. McGivney, who was still a teenager when he arrived at Niagara University, excelled in baseball and seemed to have had a bit of a peripatetic streak: after being born and raised in Connecticut, the young Fr. McGivney began college studies for the priesthood at St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, then moved to Niagara University, and after only three semesters moved again to Montreal to study at the Jesuits’ Sainte-Marie College. After the death of his father, Fr. McGivney’s bishop preferred to keep him closer to Connecticut (or at least out of Canada), sending him to Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Seminary (run by the Priests of Saint Sulpice), before finally being ordained and incardinated back in his native Connecticut.
So what are the chances that two Niagara University classmates—a school so small it numbers even its current enrollment at 3,300 undergraduates—could possibly be declared Venerable Servants of God? Very slim. There are only eight other current Venerables from the United States (or naturalized citizens). Venerable Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar, is indeed American-born, but unlike Fathers Baker and McGivney, he is not a secular (diocesan) priest. Ironically (and almost unbelievably) the only other American-born diocesan priest to be named Venerable Servant of God is Fulton J. Sheen—bishop of nearby Rochester, New York from 1966-69—and a holder of an honorary degree from… Niagara University!
An archivist’s dream would be to come across an ancient daguerreotype of Fathers Baker and McGivney, circa 1871, side by side, heads bent in prayer in Niagara’s stunning Alumni Chapel, or a candid photo of the two saintly men walking and talking on the Monteagle Ridge overlooking the Lower Niagara River. Alas, no such photo exists. Indeed, due to the fact that Fr. McGivney was just entering the seminary while Fr. Baker was well on his way to finishing—and due to their age difference and preferences in how to spend their free time—it is unlikely (though not impossible) that the two men spent much, if any, time together aside from group functions for seminarians in general.
But none of this is of any great matter: the Vincentian spirit of Catholic social justice fired both Michael J. McGivney, the young, restless, wandering spirit, and Nelson H. Baker, the already elderly, former businessman and homebody. Both men took St. Vincent de Paul’s example to heart to help the poorest of the poor, leaving a legacy of service throughout the Catholic Church.
It’s a tradition both Venerable Fr. Baker and Fr. McGivney can be proud of, regardless of when, if ever, they are officially raised to the altars of the Church.