Father Baker's shrine of Our Lady
of Victory in Lackawanna NY,
named after a famous Paris church,
Compared to some of my favorite churches—Saint Étienne du Mont, Saint Eustache, Saint Gervais, Saint Merri, Saint Julien-le-Pauvre, Saint Séverin, O gosh, I could go on and on—Notre Dame des Victoires is a fairly new church. In 1619 the discalced Augustinians, a Reformed Order of Friars known as the Petits Pères, built their monastery not far from the Palais-Cardinal, the home of Cardinal Richelieu (now known as the Palais Royal). Actually the Augustinians moved in just ahead of the Cardinal who began constructing his palace just about the time the Augustinians were starting the construction of their Church in 1629. King Louis XIII came in person to lay the cornerstone of the new church which he was building as a votive offering to Our Lady in thanksgiving for the defeat of the Huguenots in the Siege of La Rochelle. (La Rochelle had long been a Calvinist city and the site of several conflicts during the French Wars of Religion going back to the time of the Saint Bartholomew Day’s Massacre.) The title, Notre Dame des Victoires, Our Lady of Victories, was to wipe the eye (an anachronistic phrase, translated in modern American English as “to stick it to”) of the Protestants. This section of the city was fast growing in popularity among the fashionable—after all Richelieu was in the neighborhood and the Louvre-Tuileries palace complex (the Paris residence of the King) was but a short walk. It was only a few years before the church was too small to meet the needs of the congregation and a larger church was begun in 1656, though only completed some seventy years later. During the French Revolution the Augustinians were scattered and the church itself secularized. Napoleon returned it to sacred worship but the nineteenth century was not at first a good time for churches. Many of the French did not return to the practice of their religion after the Revolution. A modern air of liberalism combined with general French cynicism made religion, and Catholicism in particular, seem to be terribly un-chic, so benighted and medieval. With the restoration of the monarchy after the fall of Napoleon many in the Church were confident in a restoration of the ancien regime with all the privileges of church and clergy but the French weren’t ready for that. There was a need for re-evangelization. And it centered, in Paris at least, on the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires. In the very worst of the dark night of French Catholicism, when the faith was most dead and Charles X was trying to restore autocracy, a spiritual renewal started. Paris had an extraordinary Archbishop in Hyacinthe-Louis de Quélen who was famous for resisting the King’s political ambitions and for care for the poor. Meanwhile the pastor of Notre Dame des Victoires Father Desgennettes, claimed to have had a vision of Our Lady. Nothing has ever been made of this vision and I don’t think the Church ever ruled on its authenticity, but it sparked a revival among the Catholics of Paris and the church became the center of great devotion. The Church was associated with the brothers, Alphonse and Théodore Ratisonne, converts from a prominent family of Jewish bankers from Strasbourg, who went on missionary work in the Holy Land, founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion. Another distinguished convert from Judaism associated with the church of Our Lady of Victories, is François-Marie-Paul Libermann who went on to reestablish the Spiritans, known then as the Holy Ghost Fathers. Alphonse Ratisbonne and Libermann both abandoned Judaism for agnosticism before converting to Catholicism whereas Théodore had passed directly from one covenant to the other. Yet another figure associated with this Church is Théophane Vénard, a member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society martyred in Tonkin, Vietnam in 1861 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, Blessed John Henry Newman made a pilgrimage to this Church in Thanksgiving. As an Anglican priest, he had prayed there for guidance years before. In 1887—several years after Nelson Baker’s prayers there, Thérèse Martin, a young girl from Lisieux in Normandy stopped in this church to pray for her vocation—she wished permission to enter Carmel despite her being underage (she was not yet fifteen). Unknown in her lifetime, she became the most popular Catholic saint of the twentieth century: Thérèse of Lisieux, aka Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the Little Flower. These are the greater and better known pilgrims but over 10,000 ex votos (plaques, usually of silver, acknowledging some prayer answered) as well as civil and military decorations, pieces of jewelry, and objects d’art have been left as a tribute to Our Lady of Victories.
When Father Baker built his ex voto, his basilica in Lackawanna New York, he changed the title a bit to Our Lady of Victory. Lackawanna today is a blue collar and working class city. Most of Western New York has suffered economic depression for decades since the collapse of the steel industry in the 70’s. Locals there probably know little about the French church that inspired their local hero, Father Baker, but the people of Lackawanna, Buffalo, West Seneca, Cheektowaga, Hamburg and all of Western New York are proud of his beautiful church and pray for the canonization of this priest who as a pilgrim had prayed at Notre Dame des Victoires.