‘The Snowshoe Priest’: Venerable Frederic Baraga

Update: On May 10, 2012, it was announced that Bishop Baraga’s decree of heroic virtue had been approved by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. The subject of this article now bears the title, “Venerable.” Deo gratias!

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Another candidate for American sainthood is Slovenian-born missionary Frederic Baraga.  He has the unique distinction of being strongly influenced by one saint, Clement Mary Hofbauer, and being himself a strong influence on another, Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann. Both saints were Redemptorists.  Hofbauer’s work and writings had a profound effect on Frederic when he was in the seminary at Vienna and Neumann devoured Baraga’s diary and missionary accounts while studying in the seminary at Prague. These inspiring relationes of our missionary bishop were the single most motivating factor in Saint John Neumann’s decision to offer himself for missionary work in the United States.

Early Life and Education

Irenaeus Frederic Baraga was born in a castle on 29 June, 1797, at Malavas, in the parish of Dobernice in the Austrian Dukedom of Carniola. Frederic (he preferred his middle name to that of Irenaeus) was the fourth of five children born to Johann Nepomucene[1] Baraga and Maria Katharine Josefa. He was baptized the day he was born. The castle was part of a vast fortune inherited by his mother.  Both parents were very pious, giving him a good foundation in the Faith; however they both died, his mother first, before he was sixteen years old.  With his father’s passing in 1812, Frederic spent four years boarding with the good Catholic family of Dr. George Dolinar, a layman, professor in the diocesan clerical seminary in the capital city of Laibach (today Ljubljana). From 1805-1813 Slovenia was wrested from Austrian provenance and occupied by the forces of Napoleon.  So, in addition to having to learn German he also had to learn French, as well as the standard requirement of Greek and Latin, which he learned at school. By the time he went to college the twenty year-old student knew four languages besides his native Slovenian. This linguistic exercise would do him much good when he came to America, where he mastered three more tongues: English, Ottawa, and Chippewa.

In 1816, Frederic entered the University of Vienna, graduating five years later, in 1821,with a degree in law.  The writings of the great fighter against the forces of Masonry, Clement Mary Hofbauer, were then very popular at the university, and his spirituality, which he received from the Order’s founder, Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri, stirred the heart and soul of the young Baraga.  Under Hofbauer’s influence Frederic began to frequent the sacraments more regularly and spend long hours at prayer. Gradually, during these student years, he became convinced that his vocation was the priesthood.  Immediately after graduating from the university he entered the diocesan seminary at Laibach in Slovenia, but not before signing off on his inheritance. Apparently due to the political instability of the times, and the threat of renewed persecution, the young levite was ordained only two years afterwards at the canonically licit age of twenty-six.

The Missionary Priest

As a priest Father Baraga was on fire for souls and the faithful responded to his zeal.  He introduced devotion to the Sacred Heart at his parish in Laibach when it was outlawed by the Austrian emperor, Francis II. He also wrote a prayer book, “The Pasture for the Soul,” in Slovenian for his parishioners. Because of this kind of zeal and his opposition to the prevalent oppressive atmosphere of Jansenism, he was sent as an assistant to St. Martin’s, a remote parish near Krainberg in Lower Carniola. Soon the heaviness of the burden of being unwanted by fellow clergy moved him to consider the American mission.  He responded to an appeal for missionaries from Bishop Fenwick of Cincinnati and received permission from his bishop to go there.  After about a three-month journey across the ocean and the Appalachian Mountains, Father Baraga arrived in Cincinnati on January 18, 1831.

Bishop Edward Fenwick was delighted to welcome the promising Slovenian. His immediate assignment was to minister to the German Catholics in the area, while he immersed himself in the study of the Ottawa Indian language. His teacher, who was studying in the seminary there, was the son of an Ottawa chief.  By May he was ready for his first mission.  It was among the Ottawas at Arbre Croche (today, Cross Village), Michigan. Bishop Fenwick accompanied him on the eight hundred mile journey to the Catholic mission, where the prelate baptized twenty-four new converts and confirmed thirty neophytes. Their own chief, Assiginak, had prepared the converts for baptism.  While here, after perfecting his knowledge of the Ottawa tongue, Father Baraga composed a catechism and prayer book, the first in that language.  He would also compose a grammar book and dictionary of the language, which took him twenty years to complete.

Among the Ottawa

Our missioner labored two years and four months among the Ottawas at Arbre Croche.  It was a very peaceful mission and perfectly conducive to winning souls to Christ.  547 adults and children were baptized during his stay there.  He lived simply, as one of the tribe, in a small log cabin with a leaky birch bark roof.  In the winter, in order to offer Mass in their rustic log church he would have to break off pieces of ice and melt them with the frozen wine over a fire. Nor did he confine himself only to this mission.  Father Baraga made many ventures on foot deep into the surrounding areas to visit other villages.  It was his custom — indeed it was that of all missionaries to the Indians — to approach each tepee or hut and, upon entering, ask if the lodgers were Christian and, if not, announce to them the gospel of salvation.  On one of these excursions, during the winter, our missioner’s food supply ran out while crossing a long stretch of a frozen Great Lake.  After several days he and his guides began to grow very worried when no shore came in sight and the pains hunger began to set in. Giving himself to prayer, suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge flock of birds was seen heading for shore.  Following their path the party found 130 eggs just laying there waiting for their arrival.

The Ottawas were a nomadic people.  They lived by hunting and fishing and gathering sap and berries for the most part, which meant moving seasonally to where there was game.  Seeing how they suffered during the winter for lack of food, Baraga built upon the work of previous missioners who had introduced them to new crops, and agricultural skills, which would nourish them through the long cold months.  This stability led to a more flourishing and harmonious village life that helped fortify the family and enhance the education of the children and young adults. Other Ottawan villages traded their furs with the French, Dutch, and English, usually for curious but useless commodities, and too often, especially with the latter, for whiskey. (Trading liquor and opium for Indian furs is how America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor started building his family fortune.)

Baraga was not immune to loneliness, a difficult cross for solitary missioners.  The heaviness of this cross was assauged by letters from his beloved sister Amanda, but these usually took fifteen months to make it back and forth to Michigan from Europe.   Sadly these successful Catholic missions would only last for a few more generations, before the post civil war period saw the forced relocation of all the native Americans from their familiar lands, lakes, and rivers to the dismal enclosures of the reservations.

Taking the Cross Further North

Relieved by the Redemptorist, Father F. Saenderl,  Father Baraga left Arbre Croche in 1833 for destinations north.  Preaching with some little success to the Indians of Beaver Island on Lake Michigan, he was advised by his converts to go south to Grand River (Grand Rapids) where they felt he would have a more attentive population.  Here he had better success, baptizing about two hundred converts, and building both a church and a school. These Indian had already heard from other tribes about Christianity and the “blackrobes,” so they were actually waiting for a missioner when Father Baraga arrived. The neophytes at Beaver Island, meanwhile, moved down to join the Christians at Arbre Croche, which soon grew to about one thousand Catholics. Although the Indians at Grand River were peace loving and receptive, not all the fur traders were. As I indicated before, some made their living by bartering whiskey for furs.  So, when they were admonished by the Slovenian missionary for exploiting the natives, and then seeing that almost every Indian in the village had embraced the Catholic religion and morals, the avaricious fur traders spurned grace and their blood boiled in resentment.  Threats were made against the life of their holy adversary.  On one occasion, when things got really intense, it took the arrival of the sheriff to dispel a drunken crowd that had marched with torches to Father Baraga’s cabin, which they were about to set on fire.

Advocate for the Rights of the Native People

That wasn’t his only problem.  By this time, 1835, the government of the United States (composed almost entirely of Masons, or Protestants) had grown used to confiscating the land of the Indians and driving them westward. The U.S. Department of Indian Affairs (still within the War Department) by the Trade and Intercourse Act was then “redefining” the Indian Territory and Permanent Indian Frontier. The Ottawas could read the writing on the wall, so their chiefs held a council at Grand River mission where they decided to negotiate with the government.  Father Baraga, a skilled lawyer, defended the rights of the Indians, which earned him the enmity of the federal Indian “Agent.”  The new bishop, Frederic Reze, the first of Detroit, decided to appease the government and so ordered Father Baraga to leave Grand River and go to La Pointe, Wisconsin, an old Jesuit mission on an island in Lake Superior, where he was to work among the Chippewas (also called Ojibways).  So, after just two years at Grand River our intrepid apostle left the mission in the hands of a Hungarian priest, Father Andrew Viszoczky.

A New Indian Mission and a New Language

“The Snowshoe Priest”

Father Baraga labored for about eight years in and around La Pointe, baptizing 981 Indians and whites. Before his arrival in July, 1835, the resident Christians had prepared about fifty Indians for baptism.  This was an encouraging welcome for poor Father Baraga, who set about immediately with the enthusiastic assistance of anxious volunteers to build a functional log church.  It was completed in only seven days and dedicated to Our Lady.  Winter was more bitter here than in Michigan and, unfortunately, the missioner’s winter clothes were late in arriving.  When the frigid weather set in, with its usual deluge of snow, the Indians would leave the island and head deep inland for warmer shelter in the forest.  To reach them Father Baraga made use of a pair of snowshoes.  Having accustomed himself to these shoes he used them for the rest of his missionary life in traversing hundreds of miles every year over the white terrain.  The faithful called him our “snowshoe priest” or later, our “snowshoe bishop.”

With June came Father Baraga traveled to Fond Du Lac (near today’s Duluth) where a pious fur trader, Pierre Cotte, had instructed potential converts and taught them Catholic prayers.  Fifty-one Ottawans were baptized here that summer.

In 1836, Father Baraga went back to Europe in order to raise funds, recruits, and awareness of the plight of missionaries in the rugged heartland of America. While back home he had a book printed in German and French that he had written on the life of the American Indians.  He also had his book on the Life of Christ printed, which he had translated into the Ottawa and Chippewa languages.  He presented Pope Pius IX with a copy of one of these books when he was received in a papal audience

Back to His Flock on the Great Lake

Returning to La Pointe, Baraga found his mission thriving.  A new and bigger church was necessary.  It was completed and dedicated in September, 1838, only three days before the bishop made a quick pastoral visit confirming 112 converts.  Yes, it could be said that Father Baraga had it a lot easier than the Jesuits, the first missionaries who actually lived and moved with the North American Indians. (September 26 is the feast day of the greatest of them, the eight North American Martyrs.)  He probably stood a greater chance of being martyred by avaricious fur traders than pagan Indians. Although he had by nature a patient and affable soul, it was easier for our missioner to be kind and generous with those non-believers who were kind and courteous to him. It was easier to preach to the poor natives about the poverty of the Christ Child at Christmas time when your audience was daily witness to your own life of poverty among them.

A More Fertile Soil for The Seed of the Gospel

By the early nineteenth century these Indian nations of Northeastern and Mid- America were more peaceful, far less addicted (if then addicted at all) to territorial wars.  No, by then their major vices were drunkenness and lust, more than obeisance to the cruel dictates of dream-weaving shamans (medicine men).  They weren’t raiding white settlements, or those of neighboring Indian tribes, scalping and killing, and taking children captive, as was the case just a half-century before.  The crimes now were more those of the white men who, by force of arms, were gradually pushing them off their lands, and, if they resisted, then there’d be bloodshed.  All of this proffered a more fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of Faith in the true God and bring the hope of salvation to the ignorant.  Further east, the Protestants were the prize to be won for Christ.  A healthy spirit of controversy, alongside the blatant fanaticism of anti-Catholic bigotry, proved to be an illuminating grace to good-willed heretics who were weary of the old doctrines of the “reformers” and less addicted to that supine ignorance which so easily follows blind prejudice.  Not far from Father Baraga’s field of labor, and not many years hence, a Jesuit mission preacher from a parish in Chicago, would convert 10, 000 Protestants, as he traveled around the country giving missions both for Catholics and any interested non-Catholics who had ears willing to hear.

The Upper Peninsula, L’Anse Mission

Many more years lay ahead for our intrepid missioner among the Chippewas, but not at La Pointe.  Father Baraga’s next mission was to answer the call of the Ojibways one hundred and eighty miles east in Upper Michigan, at L’Anse, on the Keweenaw peninsula.  This call came by way of another pious French fur trader, Pierre Crebassa.  The trader had been sending letters to Father Baraga urging him to come to the peninsula where an abundant harvest of souls was waiting. Leaving La Pointe in 1843, Baraga would spend the next fifteen years of his life at this new and remote post.  Not only Indians benefited from his priestly ministrations, but so did Catholic European immigrants who had come to the Upper Peninsula to work in the iron and copper mines.  Here, too, he had to confront the authorities to prevent the relocation of the native people.  He also completed a grammar book and dictionary of the Chippewa language, which was an essential aid for the missionaries who succeeded him. This he had printed when he returned to Cincinnati in 1853. In the preface he wrote: “This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first Dictionary of the language ever published. The compilation of it has cost me several years of assiduous labour.” In addition to the grammar and dictionary, the missionary also wrote commentaries in Ottawan on the epistles and gospels for all the Sundays of the liturgical year.

The trials our missioner endured as the only priest working in this vast territory — for several years, that is — were astounding. As a lone missioner he endured patiently the incredible hardships that go with traversing on foot (more often than not) or sled the craggy frozen tundra of Northern Michigan and crossing Lakes Superior and Michigan, which in severe winters can totally freeze over.   With the increase of the white population help did eventually arrive and, by 1853, the territory was separated from the diocese of Detroit and erected into an Apostolic vicariate.  Father Baraga was chosen to be its first bishop.


Bishop Baraga, Paternal Shepherd

It was in the cathedral in Cincinnati that the “snowshoe” priest became the “snowshoe bishop.” His principal consecrator was Archbishop Purcell, with Bishops LeFevre of Detroit and Henni of Milwaukee officiating as assistant consecrators. Shortly after his elevation to the episcopal dignity, Bishop Baraga issued two circular letters, one in Chippewa and the other in English, encouraging his northern flock to hold fast to the Faith: “Stand firm in the faith, adore, respect, obey, and love God all the days of your life.” This was the first and only pastoral letter ever written in a native American language. Bishop Baraga’s jurisdiction extended not only to the whole Northern Peninsula of Michigan, but also to a large part of the Lower Peninsula, to Northern Wisconsin, and to the North Shore of Lake Superior. His Episcopal See was not established in L’Anse but in the third oldest mission village in America, Sault Ste. Marie.

Shortly after his consecration Baraga made another trip to Europe.  Perhaps, he felt, as a bishop he would have more success in enlisting recruits and raising funds.  Of the five priests who did commit to the Michigan mission only two actually were deployed there. Wherever the good bishop went throughout Europe missionary societies and crowds of the faithful, who had read his inspiring letters over these past twenty years, came to meet him face to face. He was actually a small man, whose physique was now very frail, and his face deeply tanned and lined as a result of  his continual communion with the elements of the air and the great outdoors. Like his beloved Indians, he was man of the forests, the lakes and rivers, the sun, snow, and ice.  His poor diet, frugal living, and penitential life, on top of the stress and other emotional pressures of his burdensome and oftentimes unpleasant responsibilities gave him the biological appearance of a man much older than his chronological fifty-six years. But the sweetness of his personality and his pastoral reputation moved the faithful to be extra generous to a man they had only known from his books. I am the “Indians’ bishop,” he would say to the Europeans — not in a self-depreciating way — but proudly, as a father, who loved his children.  One can see these noble characteristics chiseled on his rugged face in a portrait he allowed to be painted of himself, to help further the cause of the missions of future generations, during the year long begging trip in Europe.

When he returned to Sault Ste. Marie, Bishop Baraga picked up where he had left off.  He continued to visit villages far away from his Episcopal city, traveling by horseback, sleigh, canoe, or showshoes. Now he could confirm the converts on his own, and ordain priests for his own diocese, for he had the fullness of the powers of the character of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Churches and schools were built throughout the peninsula.  One of the priests he ordained, Father Henry Thiele, would continue his work as a great missionary to the Chippewa and white Catholics of the Michigan territory.  After twelve years at Sault Ste. Marie, Bishop Baraga relocted the Episcopal See to the more populated and culturally active city of Marquette, in the central region of the Upper Peninsula, where it is today.  Worn out with labors, he died at Marquette on January 19, 1868. He was buried there in the crypt of St. Peter Cathedral.  After thirty-seven years of labor among the Indians he was called home to rest forever; he was seventy years-old.

Our missionary bishop was beloved by both the Indians and the white settlers, for he labored for all.  He was, in his time, perhaps even more loved by his native Slovenians.  Certainly he was in the early twentieth century when his memory was still fresh among his native people.  His prayer book, Dusna Pasa “The Pasture for the Soul,” passed through ten editions, the last, in 1905, with 84,000 copies sold.  And the popularity of his diary and his accounts of Indian life and culture, first published in German, were read throughout Eastern Europe.  These accounts are what led to the missionary vocation of Saint John Neumann who, before he was assigned as Bishop of Philadelphia, had spent some years in American mission territory (the Buffalo, Cleveland, and Milwaukee dioceses), not among the Indians, however, but among the Catholic European immigrants. If, while he was laboring in these areas, he had been able to travel further north to the Upper Wisconsin Peninsula, he would have met the man whose writings had so inspired him.

In addition to the enormous burden of so many physical labors, Bishop Baraga, in addition to the Chippewan Grammar and dictionary, the Dusna Pasa, and the book of Sunday sermons, also penned a book on Veneration and Imitation of the Blessed Mother of God, in Slovenian (1830); Animie-Misinaigan, an Ottawa prayer book; Jesus o Bimadisiwim (The Life of Jesus), in Ottawa (Paris, 1837); On the manners and customs of the Indians, in Slovenian (Laibach, 1837); Zlata Jabelka — “Golden Apples” (Laibach, 1844); Kagige Debwewinan — “Eternal Truths”; and Nanagatawendamo-Masinaigan — Instructions on the Commandments and sacraments, the last three in Chippewa.

Bishop Baraga is amply honored in the state of Michigan, almost as much as Pere Marquette himself.  One of her counties bears his name, as do several towns, and one of the principal streets of Marquette.  There is also a shrine dedicated to him in L’Anse, Michigan, with a colossal bronze statue of the missioner, standing thirty-five feet high, with cross and snowshoes in hand.

For more information, including biographies of the bishop (unfortunately, I did not have these books as references for this article), you can contact the Bishop Baraga Association / 347 Rock St. / Marquette , MI 49855

Or phone (906) 227-9117

Servant of God, Bishop Frederic Baraga, pray for us, and pray for America!


[1] Saint John Nepomucene (or John of Nepomuk, Bohemia) the patron saint of Saint John Neumann, was a priest and martyr of the late fourteenth century (+1393).  He was killed by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia for refusing to reveal what the king’s wife had told him in confession.  He was, and is still, a popular patron saint among the Slavic peoples.