American Sanctity: Father Nelson Baker

When they moved the body of this indefatigable, untiring priest from Buffalo, they found his blood still in ‘pristine condition.’

LACKAWANNA, N.Y. — Msgr. Nelson Baker could possibly become the third America-born saint and the first American-born male — and priest — saint.

He came a step closer to canonization Jan. 14, when Pope Benedict XVI declared him “Venerable Nelson Baker.”

To mark the completion of this first step in the canonization process, Buffalo, N.Y., Bishop Edward Kmiec and Msgr. Paul Burkard, head of the Our Lady of Victory Institutions, announced the news at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, N.Y.

“Pope Benedict has recognized the exemplary life led by Father Baker, a simple diocesan priest, whose devotion to Our Lady of Victory and service to the least among us was extraordinary,” Bishop Kmiec stated.

Indeed, Msgr. Baker — always known simply as Father Baker — spent all but one of the 60 years of his priesthood serving orphans, the marginalized and the poor.

A Civil War veteran and partner in a successful grain and feed business, he was ordained in 1876. Except for one year assigned to another parish, his entire priesthood was spent at his parish, first composed of a church, orphanage and protectory for young boys.

To wipe out the institutions’ huge debt and get help for those in need, Father Baker revolutionized national fundraising by founding the Association of Our Lady of Victory. Members paid 25 cents a year.

Father Baker was on his way to building his “City of Charity.” By 1901, the number of boys at St. John’s Protectory tripled to 385, and in St. Joseph’s Orphanage, the total number of children doubled to 236. He opened a trade school and a Working Boys Home, then Our Lady of Victory Infant Home for infants and unwed mothers, plus a maternity hospital which he later converted into Our Lady of Victory General Hospital.

At age 79, he built one of the most magnificent European-style basilicas in the world as a gift of thanks to his lifelong patroness, Our Lady of Victory. Made of the finest materials and craftsmanship from several countries, the basilica was debt-free when it was dedicated in 1926. Father Baker had developed a deep devotion to Our Lady of Victory during his visits to her shrine at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Basilica while he was in Paris in 1874 as a member of the first organized American pilgrimage on its way to Rome.

He did even more to help people during the Great Depression, before he died in 1936 at age 94.

Shortly after the official announcement from Rome, Msgr. Paul Burkard, who is also vice postulator for Father Baker’s cause for canonization, spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

How was the news received in the Buffalo area when Rome named Father Baker “Venerable”?

With great enthusiasm. In western New York, Father Baker is considered a local saint since before he died. There were legends about him even before he died: how people came to him for prayer. To show how popular he was, when he died, a half million people were at his funeral. The streets were clogged that morning.

He was well-known. He established the orphanage here, the protectorate, the infant home and a general hospital in the area, mostly caring for vulnerable children in that time period. In the Depression, he also opened food lines to take care of adults out of work and those who needed food. He served thousands and thousands of meals to those who were poor. (Official estimates show that Father Baker was responsible each year for a million meals, clothing for a half million, and medical care for 250,000 others during the Depression.)

Do you still hear regularly of people’s prayers being answered through Father Baker’s intercession?

Before this announcement from Rome, we would get probably two to three notifications a month from people who believe they received a spiritual or physical favor from Father Baker. Since this happened, there are four a day. People call to tell what happened in their family in the past that they never reported. Lots of people have recollections of the past since Jan. 14.

Did you discover anything extraordinary when the Vatican recommended Father Baker’s remains be moved and re-buried in Our Lady of Victory Basilica?

His blood. When they moved the body into the basilica in 1999, they discovered when he was buried people had removed the bodily fluids, as they did for royalty in Europe, and they placed these in a small casket on top of his coffin when he was buried in 1936. When his body was moved, they discovered this casket for the first time. It had vials of his blood and body fluids still in pristine condition with no sign of deterioration or drying up of any kind.

Recently, I had to review that and look at it again, and today the blood is in the same condition as the day he was moved. Rome is aware of it. Some was sent to the Vatican for study. But it can’t be used for a miracle along the canonization process. Any kind of a miracle for beatification has to be in the service of another person.

What does Father Baker being named Venerable mean for Our Lady of Victory Institutions and for the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory now?

That ratchets everything up a notch. People who come to visit become aware of the legacy, of the programs.

We continue Father Baker’s legacy through Baker Victory Services, basically a social outreach to vulnerable children. Any given year, we serve 3,000 children in different degrees of special needs. The children need everything from totally dependent 24-hour-a-day care, to those who have severe learning disabilities or emotional and psychological problems.

All this is a continuation of what Father Baker began here. Overall, it is the Our Lady of Victory Institutions. Baker Victory Services is the social work arm of the program that continues Father Baker’s legacy, as do the Homes of Charity, as does the parish and the shrine. 

With the new awareness, where he is in the process of his canonization, the heightened awareness of his life and cause attracts people to our institutions. It’s a wonderful way to encourage and to affirm Father Baker’s legacy and to make people more aware of what we do here. We hope that encourages them to support the work we do. People all over the world are benefactors.

At the present time we get 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a year from outside western New York. The basilica is a unique architectural gem. People come for it and to visit the tomb of Father Baker. For sure, we have more coming to visit now. People come to pray at his tomb for favors for themselves and others.

Since last October we have a state-of-the-art museum honoring Father Baker’s life, and people come to visit it. The museum traces his life and ministry chronologically, a little of each program he began, and shows them in the present day. There is also a reproduction of his original room, which has his personal possessions and things belonging to his mother.

How can Father Baker inspire people and teach them virtues to imitate? 

As Rome approved his heroic virtues, one of the things they concentrated on was his virtue of charity and his compassion for people in need, especially children who were vulnerable, and his sense of service and his “feel” for what people needed most in that time of life. He was the kind of guy who, whenever he saw a concern, was moved to meet it.

He founded the Working Boys Home for those who had to leave here. They were in the orphan and the protectorate reform program. By law, they had to leave the property at age 17, so he founded these homes so they have rooms or apartments in Buffalo while looking for a job. Father Baker asked, “What can we do to serve people in need?”

One of the women here for the announcement said it all with a great encapsulization of his life: “He showed us what we should be. He showed us how we should act and be a Christian.”

He even did much outside of Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity?

Apart from all that’s here, he also founded the first black Catholic parish in the neighborhood. Many were workers at a steel mill in Lackawanna who were Catholic or who wanted to be. It was [the parish of] St. Charles Borromeo.

On top of all this, at two different times when bishops were out of the diocese, as vicar general, he was the administrator of the whole diocese outside of our institutions here. He was absolutely untireable.

Of course, the icing on the cake was when he was 80 years old and decided to build the basilica. He tore down the parish church and personally oversaw almost every detail of the basilica itself. I think of him a lot. He was absolutely indefatigable. We can all pray to ask him, “Bless my aging process!”

Does the Rome announcement affect the work here? 

We still have a program for children in a sense orphaned and a court-mandated residential program. In fact, we also have children who are so physically compromised they are 24-hour dependent for everything, from medical to hygienic care. We have a day-care program for children who have difficulties. A program for autistic children. Adoption programs, domestic and international. A home for unwed mothers and also for those with young children and in need of parental training.

Things Father Baker established are still here but have developed according to the ways laws have changed. For example, we can’t have a big-building orphanage. Instead, we have 27 group homes across western New York. The format is different because of how laws changed.

Baker Services provides training in several areas of skills so the boys and girls have a skill to take with them. Father Baker did the same thing. He taught the boys farming, barbering, shoemaking, cooking, baking, so when they left here they left with skills to get a job and care for themselves.

We’ve changed with the times and expanded his programs, but we’re doing exactly what he would be doing if he were alive today.

The next step would be beatification. Are you working on presenting the miracle necessary?

I hope in a reasonable time we’re going to be able to move on to beatification.  We do have a miracle in front of Rome at the present time. I visit Rome yearly, and I know personally it’s actively being pursued in Rome.

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

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