Father Nelson Baker — Buffalo’s Padre of the Poor

In 2011, Father Nelson Baker became Venerable Nelson Baker when Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree recognizing his life of “heroic virtue.”

(photo: Register Files)

When he died at the age of 94 on July 29, 1936, Father Nelson Baker was known as the local saint. He had left his mark on the Buffalo, New York, area, most visibly in the form of the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory. The towering church had the second-largest dome in the country when it was consecrated in 1926. Father Baker had built the cathedral-sized parish church in thanksgiving. He attributed all the work he accomplished for the poor in the city to the help of Our Lady of Victory.

Father Baker was born in Buffalo in 1842, the son of a mixed marriage. He was baptized in the Lutheran church of his father, but at the age of 10 asked to join the Catholic Church of his mother. After returning from fighting in the Civil War, he opened a feed and grain store with a friend. He also donated to and volunteered at the local boys’ orphanage in the suburb of Limestone Hill. One evening, chatting with the director, Father Hines, he admitted that he had often thought about becoming a priest, even though he didn’t have the education required to enter the seminary. Nevertheless, Father Hines promised to recommend him. For his part, Nelson started studying Latin on his own. About a year later, he entered the seminary. During his studies, he had the chance to go on a pilgrimage to many of Europe’s shrines. He was most struck by the shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Paris.

After his ordination in 1876, Father Baker took over for Father Hines and spent all but one year of his priesthood at Limestone Hill. The diocesan charity consisted of two sections, the orphanage for boys who had been abandoned or lost their parents, and St. John’s Protectory for delinquent boys. As the new superintendent, the first thing Father Baker did was take the bars off the windows of the protectory.

“There are no bad boys,” he said to those who questioned him.

He wanted both the orphanage and the protectory to be more homelike.

Next, Father Baker had to address the creditors breathing down his neck. The boys’ home owed over $60,000 (an exorbitant amount of money for that time) to various entities. None of the creditors would accept partial payment, so Father Baker hitched the carriage and rode into Buffalo. He took out everything from his personal bank account, down to the last penny.

He also formed a plan that would not only save the orphanage and protector, but also fundamentally change fundraising. He gathered the addresses of charitable women around the country and sent them a letter. He explained the work of the orphanage and protectory and then invited them to become members of the Association of Our Lady of Victory for an annual membership of 25 cents. Within a few years, he had paid off the debt and raised enough money to build an extension for the growing number of boys.

Father Baker was now on his way building his “City of Charity.” The number of boys in the protectory had tripled and the orphanage had doubled. Father Baker also started a trade school, farm and working boys’ home to help the young men transition to self-supporting adults. He also opened the Infant Home, and later its maternity hospital, to support unwed mothers with their children. For those afraid to ask for help, there was a crib inside the unlocked door to safely leave a child in the anonymity of the night. It caused quite a stir in Buffalo. Critics believed that these women needed to be punished for their sin, even if it meant hard poverty for them and their children. Father Baker believed in mercy.

Anyone looking for help could find it at “Father Baker’s.” Besides the boys’ and maternity homes, the City of Charity provided meals, clothing and money to countless numbers of people down on their luck. Father Baker gave generously with empathy and without discrimination. For example, he regularly accompanied the people who kept these homes running, the Sisters of St. Joseph, on their begging outings around Buffalo. Then he would go down the soup line, talking to the men and handing out quarters. With each quarter, he hoped he gave them a little self-respect. He put himself in the place of the poor and treated them with the same mercy he hoped for.

“When I die the Lord will not ask me if all of them were worthy, but he might ask me if I gave,” he said.

On Jan. 14, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree recognizing Father Baker's life of “heroic virtue,” thereby designating him Venerable. Known as the Padre of the Poor, Father Baker was considered to be a powerful intercessor for miracles, even during his life. Now his cause for canonization seeks to identify a medical miracle — one that is an instantaneous, complete and lasting healing of a serious condition without the aid of medicine — in order that he might someday be declared Blessed.