3 Outstanding Catholic Churchmen Every Catholic Should Know
These three men — Ven. Frederic Baraga, Fr. Thomas Price and Archbishop John Noll — deserve to be better known among American Catholics
The Catholic Church in the United States has had many outstanding churchmen who devoted their lives to spreading the Gospel in the United States. The following are three—two Americans and one European who spent much of his life in the U.S.—who should be better known among American Catholics.
Venerable Frederic Baraga (1797-1868), the first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, was the first of many Slovenian missionaries who came to establish the Catholic Church in the Great Lakes region of the United States. His cause for canonization was opened in 1952; in 2012, he was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI.
He was born in the manor house Mala Vas in Slovenia, Europe, the fourth of five children. He earned a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1821, but opted to enter the seminary rather than pursue a career in law. He was ordained a priest in 1823. Answering the call of becoming a missionary in the New World, he came to the U.S. in 1830. He spent the next 37 years of his life ministering to the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and European immigrants of the Great Lakes region.
He was consecrated a bishop and appointed vicar apostolic of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1853. In 1857, the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie (today called the Diocese of Marquette) was established, of which he was named bishop.
There are many stories of Bishop Baraga’s treks throughout Michigan on foot, in fair weather and foul. One winter day, for example, Bishop Baraga was told that an unbaptized Indian girl was dying. The bishop strapped on his snowshoes and walked 57 miles through the snow so he could baptize her.
During the winter of 1853, he was told of a family in desperate need of medicine and provisions. He loaded up what supplies he could carry, and took off on a 250-mile trip to help them. About 90 miles from his destination, his snowshoes gave out, and he was stuck in the snow. By chance, he met a trader who worked for the federal government. He explained the situation, and the trader gave him some new snowshoes. Bishop Baraga was able to go off on his way again. The trader later speculated that Baraga would have died in the snow if it hadn’t been for their chance meeting. Such travels earned Baraga the nickname “the Snowshoe Priest.”
The bishop was adept at learning languages, and by age 16 was fluent in six. When he began working with the Indians, he went to work learning their language. In one instance, he hired an 18-year-old Indian to teach him his language, and went on to write “Grammar and Dictionary of the Chippewa Language,” still in use today.
He made trips back to Europe in search of missionaries and funding for the American missions. At least 17 responded to his call and became missionaries; three would go on to become bishops.
He was devoted to prayer, and spent three hours a day in the mornings in prayer. He’d “sleep in” until 4 a.m. in the winter, but otherwise he’d start his day praying at 3 a.m. One time he wrote that he was furious at himself because he’d overslept one day and missed his time with Jesus. He resolved never to let it happen again. To help him in his prayer life, he had the spiritual advice of Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli (1806-1864), a Dominican priest who worked nearby. They were spiritual advisers to one another.
In 1866, the bishop traveled to Baltimore for a bishop’s conference. He had a stroke while there. The other bishops didn’t want him to return to Marquette, but he convinced the priest who had traveled with him to take him back to Marquette anyway. The stroke inhibited his ability to speak and walk, however, and he died 1 ½ years later.
Bishop Baraga’s body is interred in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Marquette, a church for which the bishop had laid the cornerstone in 1864. The Diocese of Marquette plays an active role in telling the story of its first bishop and supports efforts to canonize him through its Bishop Baraga Association (www.bishopbaraga.org).
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Servant of God Fr. Thomas Price (1860-1919) was the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a priest, and traveled about the state in horse and buggy in an effort to make “every Tar Heel a Catholic.” He was also co-founder of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, which is known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Land he bought more than a century ago to build an orphanage was used by the diocese to build its new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, which opened in 2017.
Fr. Price was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother, Clarissa Bond, was a devout Catholic convert in a region of the country that was predominantly Protestant. Three of Clarissa’s children would go on to the priesthood or religious life. “Freddie,” as his family called Fr. Price, was especially inspired to become a Catholic priest through the example of the future Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921), who served as Apostolic Vicar of North Carolina from 1868 to 1872, taking up residence for a time in Wilmington.
Discerning he had a vocation, Freddie headed to St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Maryland, by ship. The ship sank in a storm, and Freddie, a poor swimmer, nearly drowned. He called out to the Blessed Mother for assistance, and he said she appeared to him and directed him to a plank of wood floating in the water. He clung to it until he was rescued. For the rest of his life he was devoted to the Blessed Mother.
He was ordained a priest at age 26, and returned to North Carolina to minister. The region was impoverished after the Civil War, which made it a difficult adjustment for priests who had been living in the more affluent North.
It was Fr. Price’s practice to come to a town and rent a Vaudeville theater. He’d then go around town and put up handmade posters advertising that a Catholic priest was going to speak, so people should bring their questions. Some people brought rotten fruit and threw it at him, but he’d deal with it in good humor.
Father began an apologetics magazine, Truth, and was known for his work with poor children and orphans. He met a priest from Boston, James Anthony Walsh (1867-1936), and they teamed up to establish the first mission society of the United States, which would become known as the Maryknolls. Fr. Walsh would later become Bishop Walsh.
Fr. Price headed overseas as a missionary at age 58, never expecting to return home. He was the only priest available with experience; the others were young and newly ordained. He was the only one who had been a pastor. When he arrived, he was unable to learn Chinese, but was beloved just the same. He died of appendicitis in Hong Kong in 1919.
Archbishop John Noll (1875-1956) is the former bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and founder of the Catholic newsweekly Our Sunday Visitor. He played a key role in the development of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
He was born in Fort Wayne, one of 19 children, and was ordained a priest at age 23 in 1898. In his 58 years as a priest and bishop, he was a dedicated Catholic apologist active in the communications media, battling misconceptions about Catholicism and promoting the work of the Church.
Although work began on the Washington, D.C. shrine in 1920 and its lower crypt was completed in 1927, the Great Depression and World War II caused a delay in construction on the great upper church. At the war’s end the bishops wanted to continue the effort to finish the upper church, and asked Archbishop Noll to spearhead the effort. He used his influence to draw attention to the shrine, including raising more than $4 million from Our Sunday Visitor readers to finish its construction.
In 1946, Archbishop Noll became chairman of the bishop’s committee dedicated to completion of the shrine, raising a total of $7 million toward that end. In the Diocese of Fort Wayne, his parishioners contributed a record-breaking $104,486 for the shrine construction effort. As Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the shrine, noted, “Archbishop Noll was a real powerhouse behind making sure the upper church was completed.”
Another of his ideas, which did not receive the support of his fellow bishops, was to have an annual collection for the shrine each year on Mother’s Day. He thought it a fitting time for such a collection as the shrine is a center of Marian devotion in the country.
Although Archbishop Noll did not live to see the upper church’s completion and dedication in 1959, he has a celebrated place in its history. Longtime docent Sal Mazzuca said, “If it weren’t for him and Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, we’d probably still be trying to raise the money to build it. That’s why we affectionately refer to Archbishop Noll as the Apostle of the Shrine.”