Venerable Father Nelson Baker’s road to victory… paved with the power of Our Lady
Every morning after Mass, Monsignor Paul Burkard stops by Venerable Father Nelson Baker’s tomb at Our Lady of Victory Shrine and Basilica in Lackawanna, New York.
Miracles worldwide – one still needed for beatification
Monsignor Burkard, who retired this past summer as pastor and rector of the basilica, said he still receives countless letters and phone calls from people across the world who tell him of miracles and favors granted through Father Baker’s intercession. A man from Hawaii called in late August to report a miraculous healing.
“That’s not uncommon,” Monsignor Burkard said.
For most of his 60-year priesthood – which encompassed the last two decades of the 19th century up until the Great Depression – Father Baker was considered a living saint in Western New York. Drawing on a solid business acumen and apostolic zeal, Father Baker fed the poor, sheltered the homeless, cared for orphans and unwed mothers, and built a beautiful shrine to his patroness, Our Lady of Victory.
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI declared Father Baker to be Venerable. The Vatican is now reviewing a reported miracle said to have been granted through Venerable Baker’s intercession. If the miracle is approved, it will pave the way for his beatification.
When the Vatican approved the positio – a formal brief arguing for a candidate’s canonization – in Father Baker’s cause, Monsignor Burkard said Church officials commented on his charity toward the poor and needy, especially vulnerable children.
“His legacy, and I think the reason he’s being considered for sainthood, is his extraordinary care for the poor, and particularly poor children,” Monsignor Burkard said.
Venerable Baker’s life story is fascinating not only for his apostolic deeds and longevity — he was feeding the poor during the Great Depression when he was well into his 90s — but also because he was already an established businessman and a Civil War veteran before he entered the seminary at age 27.
“He was probably 15 years older than most seminarians at that time,” Monsignor Burkard said.
Born Lutheran, Catholic at 10, soldier at 19
Born on Feb. 16, 1842, Venerable Baker grew up the second of four sons to a Lutheran father and Catholic mother in Buffalo, New York. He was baptized in his father’s church, but he felt drawn to his devout Catholic mother’s faith, and was re-baptized in the Catholic Church when he was 10 years old.
After graduating high school, Venerable Baker joined his father and older brother in working in the family’s general store in downtown Buffalo. He was settling into that life when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Two years later, after Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army invaded southern Pennsylvania, Venerable Baker enlisted with the 74th New York Regiment. His unit boarded a train for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“They did some work there at the end of the Battle of Gettysburg,” said Monsignor Burkard, who added that Venerable Baker’s unit was almost immediately sent to New York City to quell the draft riots that had broken out there.
“Historians tell us he probably saw more action in New York City than he did at Gettysburg,” Monsignor Burkard said.
Returning home to Buffalo, Venerable Baker settled back into his old routine in his father’s store. He took advantage of a subsequent opportunity to go into business with a friend. Together, they founded a successful grain and feed business.
Helping Catholic orphans, prompted toward priesthood
Venerable Baker donated his money and free time to supporting a local Catholic orphanage. According to his biography, he thought of becoming a priest, but figured he was too old and lacked the proper schooling to prepare him for seminary. That changed after a providential encounter with the priest-administrator of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Limestone Hill, New York. The priest promised to recommend him for admission to the seminary.
In September 1869, Venerable Baker entered Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Buffalo. While still a seminarian, he joined an American pilgrimage group to Europe. The group stopped at a church in Paris, where Venerable Baker knelt down before a statute of Our Lady of Victory.
Valor from Our Lady of Victory
“He spiritually took her on as the patroness for the rest of his life,” Monsignor Burkard said. “From that point on, he regarded her as the impetus for everything he did in terms of his future ministry.”
Venerable Baker was ordained a priest on March 19, 1876 – the feast of St. Joseph – at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo. He was sent to help the apostolic institutions at Limestone Hill, which were in deep debt. Overwhelmed with the seemingly hopeless situation at first, he asked for a transfer. He returned a year later, and never left.
He used his personal savings to pay down the debts. He formed the Association of Our Lady of Victory, which became the first mail solicitation fundraising initiative in the United States. The association enabled him to pay off the debt and to begin much-needed building projects on the site. He even ordered the drilling of a natural gas well on the property that continues to produce natural gas to this day.
Sanctuary for unwed mothers, babies
Horrified over news reports of workers discovering bones and bodies of infants and small children in the Erie Canal, Venerable Baker established Our Lady of Victory Infant Home to provide a sanctuary for unwed mothers and their babies.
“The local community had some mixed reactions to it,” Monsignor Burkard said. “Some people felt this was aiding and abetting unwed mothers. Those who cooperated with Father Baker knew this was the most charitable thing to do.”
Built Shrine, helped poor during Depression
Even as he entered his later years, Venerable Baker did not slow down in his labors. He was 79 years old when he began overseeing the construction of the Our Lady of Victory Shrine and Basilica. The magnificent church was completed in 1926. Within a year of its opening, Pope Benedict XV elevated it to a basilica.
Western New York did not escape the economic sufferings of the Great Depression. Though he was entering his 90s, Father Baker worked to ensure that the institutions under his watch helped out. Diocesan records show that Father Baker’s institutions served more than 450,000 meals during the first three years of the 1930s.
Venerable Baker died on July 29, 1936. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, and later re-interred at the basilica after his cause for canonization began in 1987. His legacy lives on today in Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity and Baker Victory Services, which provide many of the same kinds of charitable services for vulnerable children and families that he began several decades ago.
“Whenever he saw a problem or a concern, he felt that was the Church’s mission, particularly things that had to do with social justice at the time and care for the poor,” Monsignor Burkard said. “He would find some way and people to help him to do it, to help him meet that need.” L
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.