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The Servant of God, Father Nelson Baker
Posted By Eleonore Villarrubia On January 31, 2006 @ 3:29 pm In Articles,Catholic America,Holy Places,Lives of the Saints | 23 Comments
In these days of Big Brother taking from the pockets of his tax-paying citizens to support millions on the government dole, it is delightful to consider the true charity of the subject of our story, Father Nelson Baker. This tireless priest, whose faith in Our Lady never wavered — not for a moment — accomplished more in his long life of ninety-five years than a hundred average men together might achieve.
Unfortunately for us, the adult Nelson Baker was very reluctant to talk about himself and his family, although he was a talkative and outgoing man — very much a “people person.” Even the year of his birth is uncertain, though it is generally accepted as 1841. He was the second of four sons born to an Irish Catholic mother, Caroline Donnellan, and a German Protestant (probably Lutheran) father. The family lived in the small, but growing, city of Buffalo, New York. Lewis Baker was a retired mariner who took advantage of the increased commerce that the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal brought to the Great Lakes, becoming the proprietor of a grocery and general store in Buffalo’s downtown. As was customary in those days, the family lived behind the store.
Strangely, the child Nelson was not baptized until he was almost ten years old. Since very little definitive information exists from his early years, the reason for that fact is unknown. To be sure, his mother was a devout Catholic, and we do know that as a child Nelson loved to accompany her to Mass.
The childhood of Nelson Baker and his brothers seems to have been a very happy one. They attended public school and had their assigned chores in their father’s store and in the house. But they still found time for boyish pranks, and a tale of one survives. Above Lewis Baker’s store was housed the local Republican Party headquarters, outside of which hung its flag on a pole. Just down the street was the local Democratic Party headquarters, with its flag hung in like manner. Nelson and his younger brother Ransom cooked up a plan to stay awake until the neighborhood was asleep; then when all was quiet, they took down the Republican flag, ran down to the Democratic headquarters, lowered their flag and replaced it with the Republican flag. Then, hastening back to their property, raised the Democratic flag at the Republican headquarters. They quietly went to their bedrooms and slept the sleep of the innocent and the just! The next morning, when the prank was discovered, fisticuffs nearly ensued. It was Lewis Baker who diffused the situation before the police had to be called.
After graduating from high school, Nelson joined his father and older brother in the store. He was bright, good with figures, outgoing, and he had a wide range of interests. His future looked promising.
For a number of years before the outbreak of the War Between the States, the citizens of Buffalo had been involved in the “Underground Railroad,” helping runaway slaves from the South make it safely across the border to Canada. In June, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his army were on the move in southern Pennsylvania. Fearful that the enemy would soon move into New York, the state called for 20,000 new recruits. Nelson was one of the first young men in Buffalo to enlist. On the evening of his enlistment, the recruits were sworn in and boarded the train for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The 74th Regiment of New York served with bravery and distinction there, protecting bridges and an aqueduct and forcing the Confederates to retreat.
Since the term of enlistment was only thirty days, the 74th expected to return to Buffalo in mid-July, but a dire emergency arose in New York City when rioting mobs began to loot, rob, burn and create general mayhem in the streets. They were protesting the draft, and in doing so, were hanging or shooting every Negro they could get their hands on. The 74th spent two days in New York City, and, together with several other companies of the state militia, was successful in quelling the riots. On July 21, 1863, Nelson Baker and the 74th Regiment returned home to Buffalo as war heroes.
Once home in Buffalo, Nelson settled into his old routine, working in his father’s store along with his brothers. One evening some time after his return, his old friend Joe Meyer approached him with a proposal. To take advantage of the booming economy of Buffalo, Joe wanted to open a feed and grain business with Nelson. Their partnership proved a profitable and successful one for a number of years. Both were good businessmen and were well-liked by their customers.
Thoughts of a Vocation
During the years that Nelson ran the business with Joe, he was most generous with his time and money to the local Catholic orphanage. He felt that God had been so good to his family and himself that he wanted to give back by helping poor Catholics. Becoming a priest had crossed his mind from time to time, but he was getting older now, and he knew that he had not had the proper schooling to prepare himself for the seminary. Each time the yearning came over him, he dismissed it — but not entirely.
One day as Nelson was returning from a buying trip, he came upon two young boys carrying a heavy sack. As he stopped his horse and wagon, he bade the boys hop in with their burden and asked them where they were headed. Their answer: “Limestone Hill, St. Joseph’s Orphanage,” the local institution to which Nelson had been so generous. Their sack contained many ears of corn given them by a local farmer. When Nelson brought the boys to their home, he stopped to see Father Hines, the administrator, with whom he was well acquainted. Father had heard that Nelson was studying Latin at night with the Jesuits in Buffalo. One thing led to another, and, before the visit ended, Father Hines promised to recommend Mr. Baker to the Bishop for admission to the diocesan seminary.
On the drive home, Nelson was so excited with thoughts of becoming a priest that he stopped at the Bishop’s residence. Bishop Ryan was most gracious and welcoming. However, he thought it prudent to remind the younger man that it had been a number of years since he had been in school — and the studies were not easy. In addition, he would no doubt be the oldest student there. “It will be an aid to my humility, Bishop,” was Nelson’s reply. The Bishop was pleased with the answer.
The next hurdle was breaking the news to his friend and partner. Joe was devastated and thought of every possible obstacle that would prevent his partner from becoming a priest, each of which, naturally, Nelson was painfully aware. For the next year, the future Father Baker worked at his business all day and continued to study with the Jesuits at night. By June, 1869, he was exhausted and ill. To get some needed rest, he embarked upon a steamer excursion around the Great Lakes. At every stop he sought out the local Catholic Church to hear Holy Mass, go to Confession, pray a novena, and light a candle. He earnestly prayed and meditated on the question of his vocation at every stop.
When he returned to Buffalo, his mind was clear about his future. The first person to hear the good news was his mother, who confessed that she had prayed secretly for years that he would become a priest. His father, however, was a harder sell, and so were his brothers: Lewis and his sons sang all the same songs that Joe Meyer sang. The elder Baker did indicate, however, that he would not actively oppose his son’s decision.
Again, Joe Meyer was devastated at Nelson’s decision. He valued his friend’s business acumen and could not afford to buy out his share of the business. Nelson, showing the resourcefulness that would serve him so well in his priestly life, already had a solution to that problem. He would bring his younger brother, Ransom, into the business, who would then buy him out as Ransom’s savings accumulated. So it was that on September 2, 1869, Nelson Baker ended one chapter of his life to begin a second, a very long one, in service to Our Lord and Our Lady.
Although he was almost ten years older than most of his fellow seminarians at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Buffalo, the future Father Baker fit in admirably with his classmates. He assumed a leadership role from the start by organizing ball games, a debating society and a music and drama group (loftily named “The Philharmonic and Dramatic Association”). This latter was for entertainment purposes only. Nelson was the most popular of the performers, his fine tenor voice eliciting many a cry of “Encore!” from his appreciative audiences.
Academically, he excelled in a difficult curriculum, achieving high grades in most of his studies and high honors in German and Declamation (Rhetoric). But it was in the spiritual life that he really grew, setting down for himself stringent rules regarding his diet, study and prayer life. He organized perpetual adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, arranging the schedule so that two seminarians knelt in adoration before Our Lord at all times with no interruption of classes or study time.
In November, 1871, Nelson was to call upon his deep reservoir of love for and faith in Our Lord and Our Lady during an almost year-long serious illness. He contracted erysipelas, a disease which today would be cured quickly with antibiotics, but in the nineteenth century was often fatal.* He became worse from the treatment in the seminary infirmary and was sent to the Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo, where he spent eleven weeks being cared for by the good sisters. He was so low at one point that he received Extreme Unction and was expected to die. In fact, he resigned himself to the Will of God and began to anticipate his coming death.
God, however, had other plans for the young seminarian, and, although his recovery was long and painful, recover he did. By Easter of 1872, Nelson Baker was finally able to walk again, with the aid of crutches. By the following July, he had “graduated” to two canes and continued using a cane until the fall of that year. September brought wonderful news: Besides his nearly full recovery from his illness, he was also accepted into the major seminary and told to “get his cassock and report to the seminary the first Wednesday in September.” Even in his weakened physical state, Nelson jumped for joy and, although he was exempted from two classes becauseof his debilitated state, he also jumped right into seminary life, organizing exhibitions for Saints’ feast days and other extracurricular activities. While his personal knowledge and holiness grew, so did his humility. His own notes attest to this fact. In them he expressed his gratitude to God for providing opportunities to practice this most difficult virtue.
A Turning Point
The year 1874 proved a turning point in the life of the future priest. Early in the year, he read about a pilgrimage to some of the great Catholic shrines of Europe for American seminarians and other interested American Catholics. He approached the seminary rector with the possibility of going at his own expense as the representative of his seminary. Permission was granted by Bishop Ryan, and Nelson prepared to leave on his great adventure in May.
Now, Europe in the 1870s was in turmoil, so it was not the most opportune time to be a tourist or a pilgrim there. Pope Pius IX was virtually a prisoner in the Vatican since Italian soldiers had invaded and taken over the Papal States; priests, bishops and archbishops had been thrown in jail in Bismarck’s Germany; and France continued in its anti-Catholic and revolutionary ways. But the Catholic pilgrims on this voyage were not the faint-hearted sort. They were visiting the great shrines for the love of God and Our Lady and to hearten the Holy Father in his time of trial.
An episode in the Roman pilgrimage sheds light on both the depth of Blessed Pius IX’s trials and the Catholic chivalry of our subject. As Italian police were hustling two British tourists to jail for the high crime of shouting “Long live the Pope,” Nelson shoved his way into the fray to intervene. Feeling a friendly hand on his shoulder and a gentle voice saying, “Come this way, my friend,” he was warned by a kind old priest who explained that interfering would only get him arrested as well. The prudent course would be to inform the British Embassy of the arrest of their citizens, something the priest and seminarian promptly did.
One of the several shrines on the agenda of the pilgrims was that of Our Lady of Victories in Paris. Young Mr. Baker, being curious about this shrine, asked the accompanying bishop about it on the Atlantic crossing. It was on the schedule, according to Bishop Dwenger, because his own brother was cured of a seemingly incurable illness through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother under this title, and he wanted to go there personally to thank Our Lady for this tremendous blessing.
(While on the subject of Nelson’s traveling companions, we should mention that another one was a Father Meulder, who had worked with recently-liberated slaves in Kentucky. He claimed that the Catholic Negroes were wonderfully spiritual people and a joy to work with, something Father Baker himself would find out years later in his own apostolate.)
Nelson Baker felt a special tug on his heart and his will during the Mass at Our Lady of Victories shrine in Paris. There were thousands of evidences of cures that had occurred here through Our Lady’s intercession. Although the pilgrims later visited Lourdes, the tombs of the Apostles in Rome, St. Peter’s and the Holy Father in Rome, his mind kept returning to the wonderful shrine in Paris and the possibility of honoring her in the same way in America. Before returning to America, Nelson found time to visit the shrine once again to behold the beautiful image of Our Lady of Victories.*
When he returned to New York in mid-July, 1874, Nelson began his studies once again at the seminary. As always, he excelled academically and grew more austere in his personal habits as a way of bending his will to the Will of God. In March of 1876, he was ordained to the diaconate. Soon thereafter, he and two other seminarians were called in to see the rector, who informed them that Bishop Ryan wished to meet with them, causing the young clerics some consternation. The rector assured them that there were no problems, and, indeed there were none. The bishop’s intention was to ordain these young men immediately because of the great need for priests in the Buffalo diocese. So it was that Nelson Baker became a priest of God on March 19, 1876 — the feast of St. Joseph — at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo. His parents and brothers were in attendance, as they were when he said his first Mass at the seminary on March 22.
A Shocking Assignment
Father Baker was shocked at the assignment he received from the Bishop. He was appointed assistant superintendent of the institutions at Limestone Hill, under his friend Father Hines. The Bishop wanted him there because of his business sense and his organizational ability. Father Hines was getting up in age and was wearied from the burden of the care of so many orphans and the debts incurred by the institutions. When Father Baker arrived in 1876, St. John’s Protectory (the facility that cared for older boys) and St. JosephBoys’ Orphan Asylum (for the younger boys) had a combined debt of $27,000. By 1881, the debt had risen to more than $60,000, an impossible sum in those days. The state gave the orphanages some money, but it wasn’t enough. Two groups of religious, the Brothers of the Holy Infancy at St John’s and the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Joseph’s gave their lives to these youngsters with no expectation of recompense, and still the state’s contribution was paltry compared to the expenses. Father Baker thought the situation was completely hopeless, and, as a result, was transferred to a parish in Corning, New York, then part of the diocese of Buffalo.
Father’s tenure in Corning was only a year, but in that time, he not only endeared himself to the parishioners, but gained something of a reputation as a miracle worker. It seems that whenever Father Baker visited a very ill parishioner, if he told him or her, “You will be all right…,” the person recovered. If he said, “Whatever Our Lord wills…,” then the person did not recover. These events were told by Brother Stanislaus, one of the Brothers of the Holy Infancy, who spent thirty-two years working with Father Baker. Nevertheless, after a short time in Corning, Father Baker was summoned by Bishop Ryan to return to Limestone Hill as Father Hines’ replacement. Thus began Father Baker’s long association with the orphanages and the prodigious happenings at Limestone Hill over the next fifty-plus years.
Although he thought he was not qualified to run the orphanages, which by that time were even more deeply in debt, and to pastor the parish church there — St. Patrick’s — the Bishop insisted. Father Baker jumped into his new assignment with all the enthusiasm his spirit could muster. Immediately he was confronted by several creditors who were owed large sums of money. He was blunt. He asked them if they would be willing to take partial payment now and wait for the rest. All but one refused the offer. That gentleman was one whom he had done business with during his partnership with Joe Meyer and who knew that Nelson Baker’s word was good. “Well,” Father replied to the others, “I will pay you, but you will never have any business from this establishment again.” He went on the offensive, giving them until the next day to decide. Then he climbed into his buggy, drove to the bank in Buffalo and withdrew every penny he had to his name to pay off the debts.
Some creditors demanded total payment; some took partial, but the cash simply was not enough to keep the place going. Father Baker racked his brain about the problem and prayed to Our Lady of Victory. Then he got the idea to form an Association of Our Lady of Victory to help the homeless and destitute children. Before bulk mailing rates, before the Internet and email, before television mass appeals, Father Baker sat down night after night and hand wrote thousands of letters to postmasters all over the country, asking them to send him names of a few Catholic women who liked to engage in charitable work in their cities and towns. As these names came in, he wrote these ladies, appealing to their sense of Christian charity and their desire to keep Catholic orphan children from being lost to the Faith by being sent to secular institutions. He asked for one quarter a year — twenty-five cents — in membership dues. In return, they would be prayed for at Masses at the major Marian shrines of Europe, including Our Lady of Victories in Paris. Not only did Father pay off his debts this way, but he was able to begin badly needed building projects at the orphanages — a new, larger chapel and additions to the two institutions for the many boys being sent to him. As a thank-you to her for the favors granted, after Mass and Benediction each day, Father led “his boys” in giving three cheers to Our Lady of Victory, startling visitors by honoring Our Blessed Mother in such a unique way.
Father Baker’s Folly
During the 1880s and early 1890s, natural gas had been discovered in the Buffalo area and across the border in Canada. Late one evening, as Father Baker sat in his office paying the enormous — and ever-increasing — heating bills of the institutions in his care, his thoughts turned to the possibility of drilling for gas on the property. According to local experts, the natural gas supply in the area was limited. Besides this, the prospecting priest did not have the funds to begin drilling — a very expensive venture. His solution? As usual, when he had to make a major decision or needed a favor, he spent the night in prayer before the statue of Our Lady of Victory that he had brought from France. Full of confidence that Our Lady would take care of the situation, he gave her his customary pat on the cheek, commenting, “Now there it is, dear Lady. I know you will take care of it.”
It was Father’s habit to spend some time in private prayer outdoors each day, walking along what his boys called “Father Baker’s prayer path.” After some days of praying in this manner, he had a visit from a priest friend who told him that a wealthy member of the diocese had presented Bishop Ryan a gift of $5000 — no strings attached! Here was the answer to his prayers. He spent several more days praying to Our Lady and determined to approach the Bishop with a request for at least part of the money.
Naturally, Bishop Ryan was incredulous at Father’s impracticality, but Father replied that he preferred to think of his idea as visionary. The Bishop agreed to $500. Knowing that this would barely be enough to bring equipment and men up from the Pennsylvania oilfields, Father Baker bargained for $2000, telling the Bishop that Our Lady of Victory knew what she was doing. Recalling that Father Baker had many times seemed to pluck money out of thin air, His Excellency reluctantly agreed. When the drillers arrived with their equipment, the boss asked when the engineer would be there. Father replied, “Our expert is already here, and she is not an engineer or a geologist, but a REAL expert. She is Our Lady of Victory!” The rough workers were amazed when a huge procession of altar boys, Sisters, Brothers, and Father Baker exited the church carrying candles and praying the Rosary. They processed into an open field until Father stopped, sprinkled the ground with holy water, took a small statue of Our Lady out of his pocket, dug a hole a foot deep, buried the statue, and commanded, “Drill here, but do not disturb the statue.”
Several days and 600 feet later — no strike. Residents of Limestone Hill (now called the town of West Seneca) began to refer to “Father Baker’s Folly.” Money was running out. Father had to approach the Bishop once more. Bishop Ryan’s entire $5000 and 1137 feet later, “Father Baker’s Folly” came in with a bang. It was enough to heat all the buildings and provide gas for cooking, with some left over to heat the homes of about fifty families nearby. The day the well came in was August 22, 1891, the date that would become the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
For the record, the well is still producing today.
A Loss . . . and a Gain
Father Baker’s loving Irish Catholic mother died in 1885. After that, his father came to visit him at West Seneca quite often. On one of his visits, at the age of seventy-nine, Mr. Baker became quite ill. Father’s faithful assistant, Brother Stanislaus, sat during the night with Lewis Baker. At 3 A. M., Brother awakened the good pastor to inform him that the elder Baker didn’t have much time. Lewis Baker struggled to ask his son to make things right so that he would not be separated from his beloved Caroline in death. Father replied, “Only Baptism can do that.” His father consented, and, after baptizing him, Father Baker anointed his own father while the Brothers and Sisters recited the prayers for the dying. Finally, one of Father Baker’s lifelong prayers was answered — his father died a Catholic.
In 1901, Father celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary in God’s priesthood. Our Lady of Victory had answered his many petitions for funds, so that all the buildings had been increased in size to accommodate the greater numbers of boys being sent to West Seneca. Between 1883 and 1901, the population tripled, many boys having been put on trains with tags on their coats or shirts saying: “To Father Baker, West Seneca, New York.” Some of these children were as young as six years old; they were from almost every state in the United States, Canada and even some European countries. As the years passed, a number of “Father Baker’s Boys” had become priests, doctors, attorneys, and professionals in other fields. They supported their “alma mater” financially and encouraged their confreres to do the same.
Father Baker’s fame had spread far and wide through the Association of Our Lady of Victory which he had started in the early days. As he began the second twenty-five years of his priesthood, his greatest work lay ahead. He always had in mind some building project and never rested in his fund-raising and building efforts. A home was opened in Buffalo for the older boys who had left the Protectory to work in the industries there — the Working Boys’ Home of the Sacred Heart. One of Father’s policies was never to turn away anyone, child or adult, who needed help. An incident recorded by Brother Stanislaus illustrates this. One night a young mother and her two little boys appeared on Father’s doorstep. She related to Father that the family had moved into the area when her husband secured a job in Buffalo. However, she was suddenly and unexpectedly widowed, and they were destitute, with neither food nor shelter. Father ordered one of the Brothers to find a place for the family to sleep and assured the mother that the Sisters would certainly need someone to help in the kitchen or the laundry. Brother replied that every bed in every building was filled. There were even cots in many of the halls holding little male bodies. Father ordered brother to give them the priest’s own room for the night. (Father Baker often fell asleep in the chair in his office reading or praying late at night; he had disciplined himself over the years to need little by way of food and sleep.) The mother protested, but Father insisted, and Brother explained to her that Father ALWAYS got his way; so there was no use arguing with him. As she tried to thank him, his reply was, “Oh, no, do not thank me. Thank Our Lady of Victory.”
Father Baker was what Brother Stanislaus termed “a one man show”: he did all the ordering of food and supplies for all the buildings, paid every bill, and personally oversaw the departments of the trades (glassmaking, gardening, dairying and maintenance); but he always had time to toss a ball with the boys, cheer them on during a game, go for an adventure walk, or stop for a prayer to and a cheer for Our Lady of Victory. The only part of the institution that Father did not run himself was the printing business. That he delegated to Brother Stanislaus, who had been a printer before he came to the Brothers of the Holy Infancy. As he entered his sixties Father seemed to have more energy and to be consumed with more ideas of how to help the poor and downtrodden.
A Horrifying Situation
Just as Father Baker began to hope that he could finally set in motion his ultimate dream — a shrine to Our Lady of Victory — a horrifying situation was brought to his attention. He read in the newspaper of a nearby canal being dredged in order to deepen it. During the dredging, many bones and bodies of infants and small children were discovered. The supposition was that unmarried women who had given birth and who had been banished in disgrace from their homes threw their newborns and older youngsters into the canal to drown, thereby ridding themselves of the burden of raising their “mistake” in poverty. Horrified, the “one man show” set about building a home for unwed mothers and their babies so as not to lose these precious souls to the Church forever. Anyone was welcome, no questions asked. If a mother did not want to keep her infant, there was a crib and a blanket always set next to the unlocked door of the home, so she could deposit her child there during the night. Amazingly, many of the locals disapproved of the situation, saying that the mother needed to “pay” for her immorality by having to live and raise her child in poverty. Naturally, Father had no patience for such hard-heartedness.
This home for infants started in the Buffalo boarding house of a benefactor, Mrs. Amelia Mathieson, with the babies placed on regular beds. As word got around and more and more babies came, he knew a special place had to be built for them. He raised money for individual cribs and bedding by “allowing” his contributors to purchase them for twenty-five dollars each, a program still in place today, although the price of a crib has risen considerably! Father’s last visit on his nightly rounds was always to the Infants’ Home. He took great pleasure in covering one, feeding another, rubbing his finger sweetly along another’s cheek, then, before he went out the door, he blessed all the babies and their nurses.
The next logical step in the building enterprises in Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity was a maternity hospital. Many of the mothers-to-be were destitute and did not want to go to the local hospitals for fear that their disgrace would become public. They could come to Father Baker anonymously and know that their secret was safe. Often, Father had to buck officials of the State of New York who demanded the name of the mother when a child was adopted. Father stood by his promise to the young ladies and never revealed their identities.
Several local doctors, some of whom were his “boys,” approached him about building a general hospital in addition to the maternity hospital. He replied that he was not sure how to undertake such an enterprise or how to staff it. But these doctors, right under his nose, were willing to undertake the enterprise themselves. All he had to do was raise the money. By 1911, both the maternity hospital and a 275-bed general hospital were operational.
How did he raise the necessary millions? Brother Stanislaus relates an incident he personally observed late one night. Father Baker left his room and made his way down the hallway to the statue of Our Lady of Victory. Brother saw him look around, take a small piece of paper out of his pocket and place it under the statue. Several days later, when Brother mentioned this to him, Father Baker replied that it was a bill that they were unable to meet and he gave it to Our Lady to take care of. When Brother asked if she had, Father looked over his glasses and commented, “You know she did, Brother.”
Father Baker’s generosity of spirit was not limited to babies and children. Among the participants in the 1919 steel strike were employees of the Lackawanna Steel Company (which had given its name to the town of West Seneca some years before).* Working hours and conditions in the mills were brutal in those days. Many of the steel workers lived in company housing and were locked out of their homes during the strike. They flocked to Our Lady of Victory and Father Baker for assistance. He gave men who came begging food for their families several loaves of bread and a silver dollar. If a man came through the line several times, he would get the bread and the dollar each time. In fact, it became Father’s habit during the years to keep rolls of bills in his pocket because he was always being approached for help with someone’s rent, a doctor bill, or some other expense. Everyone in the area knew that he could find a friendly smile, a willing ear, and a few dollars from the dear priest. During the terrible times of the Great Depression, thousands of homeless and destitute flooded Lackawanna and Buffalo, where they found food and sometimes shelter and work at Our Lady of Victory. In the first three years of the 1930s, Father Baker estimated in a report to the Bishop that he had spent more than $50,000 feeding and otherwise assisting the destitute, and records show that nearly 500,000 meals were served during that time.
A Dream Fulfilled
For many years, Father Baker had dreamed of building a fitting shrine to Our Lady of Victory. His parish had grown, and the church was unable to hold the thousands who flocked to his Masses and novenas. Each time he thought he could begin, some emergency arose or a new building project took precedence, and the church was delayed. At last, in 1921, when Father was eighty years old, and had survived a serious operation to remove his “good” eye because of an infection, the plans were begun. At an age when most people were long retired, he started the most ambitious undertaking of his career. There was no money to fund the shrine yet: in Father’s words, “We haven’t got a nickel to start, and we won’t have a nickel to pay on it when it is finished.” He had faith in his supporters which by this time were legion and, most of all, he had faith in Our Lady of Victory. She had always come through before, and he had no doubt that she would find a way of paying for a beautiful church befitting her Queenship. Father hired the finest church architect and sought out the most expensive materials. He personally went door-to-door in Buffalo and Lackawanna, begging gold and jewelry to be melted down and used in the monstrance. The magnificent church was completed by May of 1926, and true to Father’s word, not a nickel was owed on it. Upon the shrine’s completion and dedication, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XV, elevated it to the dignity of a basilica, one of the few in the United States.
There are several charming tales about the building of the shrine. One involves a group of “Father Baker’s Boys” — men who were raised in his orphanage — who had fought in the Great War, and were visiting Spain after the close of World War I. As they toured the countryside, a local farmer invited them into his house for a rest. They were astonished to see a small shrine to Our Lady of Victory and Father Baker’s picture in the farmhouse. Because neither understood the other’s language, the Spaniard ran to fetch a neighbor who understood English. The soldiers explained to the farmer that they knew Father well; then they told him about the beautiful church he hoped to erect in the name of Our Lady of Victory. At this point the farmer became very excited, explaining to the soldiers that he had an outcropping of red marble on his land that he would give to Father for the project. When the Americans arrived back in Buffalo, they related the incident to the priest. Later, his architect traveled to Europe to select the marble for the church and determined that the farmer’s marble would be just enough to carve four serpentine columns flanking the main altar. There they stand today, a tribute to the world-wide respect and love for the tireless priest.
Another sweet story tells of the two groups of marble figures atop the colonnade flanking the entrance of the shrine. One is of a group of young boys surrounding a sister — in honor of the Sisters of St. Joseph who served their charges so faithfully. The other was to be of a group of older boys surrounding a priest or brother in honor of the shrine’s priests and the Brothers of the Holy Infancy who dedicated their lives to these boys. Some of Father’s friends conspired to have a sculptor follow the pastor on his daily rounds, making a likeness of his face in clay. Then the likeness was sent to Italy, and, to Father’s great horror, he confronted himself in marble when the statue was erected!
An Unexpected Mission
One of the results of the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s was a migration of thousands of Negroes from the South to northern cities, where they hoped to find employment. Many of these unfortunates found their way to Lackawanna simply because of Father Baker’s reputation of never turning away anyone in need. Because of his great charity to the Negroes in his care, many of them decided that they wanted to become Catholic. Father Baker himself, now more than ninety years old, taught them religion classes, took them on tours of the basilica, and received them into the Church. He told a friend, Mrs. Margaret Bernardo, who helped him in his efforts with the Negro converts, “Once I thought the only thing that could please me was when I built this Basilica. But this has pleased me more — to convert the Negroes to Jesus Christ, and I know it is a blessing.” As had happened in a number of his efforts, some in the local community of Lackawanna and the greater area of Buffalo complained and criticized him for bringing “riff-raff” into town. He was even criticized by some church officials in the diocese for rushing the Negroes through the conversion process. But, as always, in his gentle way, Father could cut to the quick with a reply: “Did St. Francis Xavier give all those folks in India a full course of instruction before he baptized them?” He took the criticism with a smile and a shrug and went ahead and did what he knew was right. Through his gentle way, thousands of “Father Baker’s Negroes” were brought into the Church.
Gentle Death of a Saintly Priest
Father’s death came gently in his bed in the hospital he had built, as he lay surrounded by his doctors and nurses, the faithful Sisters of St. Joseph and the Brothers of the Holy Infancy. His health had deteriorated during the first part of 1936, but his mind remained alert until he finally lapsed into a coma in the early morning of July 29. At 9:20 that same morning he breathed his last while being blessed by Father Joseph A. Burke, later to become bishop of Buffalo.
Father Nelson Baker’s sixty-plus years in the priesthood were spent sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, giving hope to the destitute, and bringing souls into the true Church; in short, in performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to an heroic degree — and most of this at the same location which he improved, enlarged, and made a world famous institution. His legacy lives on today as Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity and Baker Victory Services, which provide the same kinds of charitable services for the poor and needy that Father began almost 150 years ago. While some government assistance is available to them, Baker Victory Services and the Homes of Charity are still primarily dependent upon contributions from caring and generous supporters around the country and even around the globe.
All during his priestly life, friends and parishioners credited Father Baker with working miraculous cures. From the time he pastored his first parish in Corning, New York, and during his long tenure in Lackawanna, evidence of cures wrought through his intercession were remembered and recorded by those who witnessed them. This article would be incomplete if we didn’t relate a few of these cures.
When the magnificent Basilica had been completed, a mother faithfully brought her crippled daughter to the church every week. They prayed for a cure at the church’s many altars. One afternoon, seeing the pair in church, Father approached them and told the mother to wheel her daughter completely around the church, stopping behind the main altar and returning to him. The mother did as he bade her and turned the wheelchair to face the main altar. At that point, the girl screamed, stood up and began to walk. Father silently slipped away in the commotion, thanking Our Lady of Victory for the favor. One staff member in the maternity hospital was at death’s door from a ruptured appendix. Father just happened upon the excitement as she was being wheeled to surgery and assured her that she would recover. Against all odds, the young lady was fine. Another friend was being wheeled to surgery to remove her painful gall bladder and told Father that she really didn’t have the time to take away from her family for this procedure. To the astonishment of her doctor, he told her to get up and go home — that she would be fine, and, sure enough, she was!
After his death, as he lay in state in the basilica, a young steelworker whose arm had been nearly severed in two, lengthwise from the underarm through to the hand, stood in the slow-moving lines of faithful viewing Father’s body. He went through the line several times daily, and each time, lifted the dead arm with his good arm and placed it for a few seconds on Father’s corpse, each time praying for the return of the use of his arm. Several weeks after the burial, the man’s arm swung in an arc in the middle of the night, striking his wife and giving her a black eye! He had miraculously regained full use of his arm, with no medical explanation.
While Father’s death was gentle, it caused a great tide of grief and sympathy in this country and around the world. The faithful came from many states, and included multitudes of “Father Baker’s Boys” and their families. For several days, from early morning until two or three o’clock the next morning, the lines of mourners filed past the bier to pay their respects to this spiritual giant. The estimated number of visitors who viewed Father’s body was between 300,000 and 500,000, an appropriate tribute to his enormous accomplishments.
In 1987, Father Baker’s cause for canonization began when he was named a “Servant of God” by the Vatican. In 1998, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome recommended that his remains be moved into the basilica from nearby Holy Cross Cemetery. The next year, on March 10, his coffin was unearthed and re-interred in the church. Three vials of blood were removed from the coffin and were found to be still in the liquid state more than sixty years after his burial. These vials were sent to Rome for testing in 2000, along with all of the required paperwork. The hope is that this will be accepted as the miracle required, allowing Father Baker to be declared “Blessed.”
Many years earlier, Father Baker had composed a prayer to Our Lady of Victory which he publicly recited after each low Mass. His prayer is a fitting end to our little story:
O, Victorious Lady, thou who hast ever such powerful influence with thy Divine Son in conquering the hardest of hearts, intercede for those for whom we pray, that their hearts being softened by the rays of Divine Grace, they may return to the unity of the True Faith, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
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