Upstate, an Unexpected Epiphany

As you drive through the city of Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie, you can see the green dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Victories from a great distance.

It is a most unlikely feature along the skyline of a city once known for its gritty factories and busy shipping port.

As you draw into the suburb of Lackawanna, the sight of the great basilica is even more striking. In gleaming white, with great arched entrances topped with magnificent statuary, it commands closer inspection.

Inside is a glory of marble and beautiful art, of soft light and reverent prayer prompts. On either side, high up as you walk down the nave toward the high altar, the titles of Our Lady, written in Latin, stand out amid the columns and statues and stained glass: Ark of the Covenant, House of Gold, Tower of Ivory.

On Jan. 8, solemnity of the Epiphany, we are reminded that the Magi must have found Mary to be all that when they arrived to honor her son, the newborn King.

Everywhere, there are angels — painted into the exquisite murals that tell the story and message of Mary’s life, peeping out from side altars, twirled around pillars and drawing the eye toward odd corners.

There are said to be more than 2,000 of them in all, although I did not count them on my recent visit. Everything gleams as with fresh polish — white stonework, shining marble, paintings fresh in delicate colors.

Nor is this a empty monument. All day, every day, people come in to pray, light candles and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. Sunday Masses are packed each weekend. And, I thought, what a splendid site this magnificent church must provide for such special occasions as weddings and baptisms.

Father Baker’s Fortune

What is the story of this extraordinary sanctuary that is vast enough and beautiful enough to rival any of the great basilicas in Europe?

The story lies in a simple tomb in a shrine to one side of the great nave. Here, in the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, lies the body of Msgr. Nelson Baker, known locally simply as “Father Baker.”

This basilica was part of his life’s work, but only a part because his years as a priest in this city were dominated by his care for the poor, for orphans, for abandoned children and for hard-pressed families. Only at the age of 80 did he embark on the great venture of a vast church built in thanksgiving to Mary, the virgin and queen to whose intercession he attributed so much.

Father Baker was born in 1851, served in the New York State militia at the Battle of Gettysburg, was a businessman for some years in Buffalo and became a priest at the age of 34 in 1876.

In the district of what was then known as Limestone Hill, a number of institutions had been started to care for orphan boys and others in need, but these were in poor financial shape and the rapid expansion of the city was creating new social needs every year.

Placed in full charge of St. Patrick’s parish in 1882, the priest took on the task of freeing the various institutions from debt and embarking on a steady program of new ventures: a hostel for working boys, an orphanage, a home for unmarried mothers and a hospital. The local newspaper told of the bodies of infants being routinely dredged from the canal, tragic evidence of the misery into which unmarried mothers slipped when no help or hope was offered.

Through the charity and dedication of this priest, and the generosity of his supporters, thousands of babies were saved and young mothers helped toward new lives.

Most financial supporters were not people of great wealth. The priest founded an Association of Our Lady of Victory, which people could join for just 25 cents a year. It was through this that debts were paid and new buildings erected.

Within a few years, an entire section of the city came to be dominated by “Father Baker’s Homes” and is still so today.

Dynastic Dome

The great basilica took shape in the mind of Father Baker as a new century was opening and a great war was being waged across the other side of the world. The plans were first presented at a routine meeting of the parish council and, by 1919, work had begun on a new elementary school. Its basement was used as a temporary chapel.

Within less than a decade, the great edifice had been erected and was free of all debt. In July 1926 it was named as a minor basilica by Pope Pius XI. At the time of its construction, the basilica’s dome was the second largest in the United States, behind only the Capitol Building in Washington.

On the ceiling of the dome — almost 120 feet from the floor, 80 feet in diameter — the Assumption and Coronation of Mary are depicted in exquisite, delicate colors.

All around the basilica, the Stations of the Cross, in white marble, tell the story of Christ’s last hours on earth. Each one was carved from a single piece of marble; the Italian artist Pepini took 14 years to complete the work.

A guest book near Father Baker’s tomb invites signatures in support of his beatification. In the crypt, a display tells the story of his life and work.

For me, a visitor from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a visit to this great basilica was an awe-inspiring experience — you might even call it an epiphany — and a glimpse of a fascinating chapter in the story of the Catholic faith in America.

Americans should be as proud of this church as the Blessed Mother is pleased.

Joanna Bogle writes

from London.

Planning Your Visit

Our Lady of Victories is open daily from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tours are conducted every Sunday at 1 p.m. For a Mass schedule and additional information, call (716) 828-9444 or visit ourladyofvictory.org on the Internet.

Getting There

From Downtown Buffalo, take Route 5 (Skyway). Exit at Ridge Road. Turn left onto Ridge and follow to South Park Avenue. (Rte. 62). For directions from other starting points, visit ourladyofvictory.org on the Internet.

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