‘They Might Be Saints’ – Bishop Frederic Baraga

Is beatification on the horizon for the “Snowshoe Priest” of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula?

Matthew Brady, “Bishop Frederic Baraga,” ca. 1853-1860
Matthew Brady, “Bishop Frederic Baraga,” ca. 1853-1860 (photo: Public Domain)

The 10-year anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI declaring Michigan’s “Snowshoe Priest,” Bishop Frederic Baraga (1797-1868), “venerable” is May 10.

The heroic life of virtue of the saintly immigrant was formally recognized by Rome after decades of research on his life was submitted to Rome. His sainthood cause, spearheaded by a dedicated, multilingual Chicago-based engineer named Joe Gregorich, sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints the positio, that is, the required academic position paper, detailing the virtues and life story, as found in Baraga’s letters to his sister Amalia back home in Slovenia and various places throughout Europe.

Baraga would also write to different missionary societies, like the Leopoldine Society, in different languages as necessary in order to try to secure funding for his famed missionary activities, which included building churches and homesteads for Native American communities as he spread the Gospel throughout the thousands of square miles of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The declaration of Venerable is the second of four steps in the sainthood process, the centuries-old sequence where the Catholic Church recognizes that someone is in Heaven with God. At the beginning a candidate is termed a “Servant of God” and a Vatican-validated miracle will advance them from “Venerable” to “Blessed,” the steps before a subsequent miracle makes them an official “Saint.”

In a new interview on “The Miracle Hunter” on EWTN Radio, Lenora McKeen, the Executive Director of the Bishop Baraga Association, confirmed that the summarium (summary of the case) for a new miracle is now being considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for “a very solid case that we have done all the necessary background work for.” For such potential medical miracles, the patient, medical personnel and family members are interviewed, with the resulting notes then being transcribed and translated into Italian. Two medical experts from the Congregation will review them along with the medical records, which could result in the case being recommended to the Medical Commission for a full review.

According to the centuries-old Lambertini Criteria as established by Italian Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758) who later became Pope Benedict XIV. The healing must be (1) of a serious illness not liable to go away on its own, (2) instantaneous, (3) complete, (4) lasting and (5) without any medical treatment that relates to the cure. It also has to be a clear case of singular intercession — the candidate for canonization can be the only saintly intercessor prayed to.

“In this case,” McKeen believes “we checked those boxes very well.” No medical intervention was given, she says “not even an aspirin.” The cure has been lasting for more than seven years. “We are very hopeful that they will deem it favorable.”

If the miracle were to be validated, Baraga would join just four other Americans as Blesseds (non-martyrs): Father Francis Xavier Seelos, Father Michael McGivney, Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich and Father Solanus Casey.

While it is a historic cause with no living witnesses, such a pronouncement of a miracle would usher the story of the “Snowshoe Priest” and his amazing journeys into the conscientiousness and admiration of a modern-day Catholic Church.

His exploits for evangelization were widely known in his native Slovenia where Irenaeus Frederic Baraga was born on June 29, 1797, to a wealthy family in a castle Mala Vas near the village of Dobrnič in the Habsburg Monarchy, which today is part of the Municipality of Trebnje. As a young boy he looked out for the poor and started his studies at age 9 and went away to a boarding school where he demonstrated a gift for languages. Students needed to demonstrate an ability to speak six languages at school; he became fluent in eight.

Family tragedies hit Frederic when he was in his early years. When he was 11 years old, his mother died, causing him to turn to the Virgin Mary for consolation as his spiritual mother. His father then passed away four years later. With no living parents and as the brother to two sisters, he felt a strong responsibility to care for them. He himself had a guardian who encouraged him to go to law school, which he began at the age of 19 in Vienna and later graduated in two years in 1821. From his days at the university, he began to feel a call to something much greater that God was asking of him. 

He entered the seminary and was able to complete expedited studies, resulting in his ordination to the priesthood on Sept. 21, 1823. In seven years as a priest, he served in the diocese of Ljubljana, where he wrote the first of seven prayer books for the faithful in the Slovenian language.

Baraga received some exciting news: Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati had issued a call to bring the faith to the native people of the United States. Baraga signed up immediately and departed from France, taking him 30 days to arrive in New York on Dec. 31, 1830. He then made his way to Cincinnati and then embarked on his 37 years of service as a missionary to the people of the Upper Great Lakes. Just 18 months after he arrived in the United States, the first church he built was a small construction of logs and bark in Manistee, Michigan, with the willing help of the natives.

Father Baraga from the very beginning set out to preserve the culture and history of the native peoples in the Upper Peninsula, found in their language, dress and tradition. He studied the Ottawa language under the instruction of the 18-year-old son of an Ottawa chief who was attending the Cincinnati seminary. The next year he was sent to Arbre Croche, an Ottawa Indian mission where he became fluent in the language. He would later publish Otawa Anamie-Misinaigan, the first book written in the Ottawa language, which included a catechism that was also useful as a faith teaching tool for the 17 Slovenian missionary priests — three of whom later became bishops —who followed in his footsteps to minister throughout the Great Lakes region and into Minnesota. Throughout his life, he would write 20 native American books, including seven prayer books. His most notable contribution was his publication of “Grammar and Dictionary of the Chippewa Language” when he decided to travel north to minister to the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians at La Pointe, Wisconsin, for eight years.

In the early 1840s Baraga was contacted by Chief Assinins and Chippewa Native Americans of the Keweenaw Bay who were hoping to have a priest come to them to teach them the Catholic faith. The chief himself was the first person to be baptized, laying the groundwork for other natives to be sacramentally welcomed into the Catholic faith and helping to open the door to establish the mission there. In 1843 Baraga he moved the mission to L’Anse, providing enough shelter with heat to help the natives not need to migrate south for the winter. He built 33 homes for the natives to live in as part of an effort to fight the movements within the government seeking to relocate the native there to Oklahoma.
During the winter months he famously traveled hundreds of miles each year on snowshoes during the harsh winters, thus earning him the nickname of the “Snowshoe Priest.” With an approximate area of 16,000 square miles, the entire Upper Peninsula area of Michigan became the missionary territory of Father Baraga. If he encountered a homestead on his journey, he would sleep on the floor in front of the stove with only a potato to eat for his meal.

One winter Father Baraga traveled from L’Anse to Copper Harbor, a distance of 57 miles through uninhabited region, with the singular mission to baptize a child because he had heard that the child was in danger of death. For a single six-week trip from his famous Keweenaw Bay mission, he made the trek to the various native encampments over 400 miles round trip to Duluth, Minnesota, on snowshoes in the middle of winter. During that time, he began the practice of rising at 4am in the winter (and then 3am in the summer) to start each day with three hours in prayer, a practice that he continued until the end of his life. 

During this time, the population of European immigrants increased as they sought work in the copper and iron mines of the region and he extended his ministry to them. Eventually by necessity he spoke in several languages at various times in the Upper Peninsula, with French Canadian families attending his Masses along with native people present there as well. He might deliver his homily three times in three different languages on any given Sunday.

In the winter of 1853, Baraga learned of a family without medicine or provisions. He brought with him all that he could carry, and embarked on a 250-mile trip to help them. With 90 miles remaining on the journey, his snowshoes gave out, and he was stuck in the snow. Baraga met a trader who gave him a pair of new snowshoes after he explained his situation. He was able to go continue on his path, thanks to kindness of a stranger. No distance was too great for him to travel, no danger was too great for him to pass up a chance to help another and save a soul.

After Baraga was elevated by Pope Pius IX as the first bishop of the newly-created Upper Peninsula of Michigan, his stamina started to fail at age 60, but he still made midwinter trips to accommodate the needs of the native peoples. He continued to serve the dying and those who sought him for God’s forgiveness in confession. In the last decade of his life, his health gradually declined as he became intermittently deaf and suffered a series of strokes. The Second Council of Baltimore in 1866 required his attendance as bishop. As he was getting ready to attend, he suffered a slight stroke and then had another severe one during the opening ceremonies. He was very ill, but Baraga wanted to die among his people. At 70 years of age his work was limited by illness, but he prayed and trusted up to the hour of his death.

He died on Jan. 19, 1868, in Marquette, in the 37th year of ministry to the native peoples of the Great Lakes. Jan. 30, the day of his funeral, was declared a civic day of mourning in the city of Marquette and all work was stopped in the city. In spite of the bitter cold and blizzard conditions, more than 3,000 people gathered at St. Peter Cathedral which was filled to capacity and overflowing into the street, with members of the Otchipwe tribe preceding the entrance of the clergy while strewing the way with evergreen branches. People from all walks of life gathered there that day who believed they had lived in the presence of a saint.