|Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna NY|
Nelson Baker was a native of Buffalo, New York, where his German Lutheran Father and Irish Catholic Mother raised a family of four boys. The Family name was Bekker or Bakker until it was Americanized as Baker. Nelson was born in 1842 and was baptized Lutheran as an infant, but growing up decided to follow the religion of his mother. His father was a grocer and seller of dry-goods and his son developed a keen business sense working with his father until enlisting as a solider in the Union Army during the War Between the States. He fought at Gettysburg. After the war he and a friend opened a feed and grain store but he was starting to think about the priesthood and studied Latin with the Jesuits at Saint Michael’s Church in downtown Buffalo. In 1869 he entered Our Lady of the Angels Seminary run by the Vincentian Fathers outside Niagara Falls NY. He made a pilgrimage to Rome with other seminarians in 1874 and on his way stopped in Paris. There he visited the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires. This church was a powerhouse of spiritual renewal in nineteenth century France—hmm, seems like we could use a few of these today and maybe one or two here in America. Baker found his experience in that church profoundly moving and developed a devotion to Our Lady of Victories that would not only last him a lifetime but shape his life.
Baker was ordained on the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1876 in Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo and assigned to the parish of Saint Patrick in Limestone Hill (now Lackawanna) just outside of Buffalo where he was to assist the pastor, Father Thomas Hines. Baker had known Hines before he (Baker) had gone to seminary and in fact Father Hines was a mentor to Baker’s priestly vocation. Father Hines was responsible not only for the parish but for Saint Joseph’s orphanage and Saint John’s Protectory. (A Protectory is a sort of reform-school for children “at risk” or guilty of petty crimes.) Five years later, in 1881 Nelson was given another assignment but returned to Saint Patrick’s in 1882 as superintendent of the orphanage and protectory. The institutions were deeply in debt. Father Hines was a compassionate man but no man of affairs, whereas Father Baker had plenty of business experience and was well known in the commercial community. Father Baker gathered what resources he could to repay the debts but they were insufficient. He went to his creditors and offered them a deal. If they would accept partial payment immediately and give him time to pay the balance, he would continue to do business with them in the future. If they wanted full payment immediately, he would satisfy the debt but never more use their services. The wise accepted his offer and his continued patronage would handsomely reward their business interests as the institutions grew and grew. Father Baker then did something very innovative for the time and wrote postmasters across the United States asking for the addresses of devout Catholics. (He was a smart businessman and knew not to ask pastors for the addresses of parishioners from whom he might solicit funds. Even today it is the only the foolish or the saintly pastor who shares his benefactors with charities.) Father Baker then wrote thousands of letters asking people to join “The Association of Our Lady of Victory” by contributing 25 cents a year for the support of these charitable institutions. (In modern purchasing power this would be just over 5.00USD today.) This was one of the first direct-mailing efforts at fundraising for charitable causes. The newsletter for the Association morphed into a magazine called The Victorian which was published up until the 1970’s.
Meanwhile the needs of people in the Western New York grew. In addition to the orphanage for boys and the protectory, Baker started a vocational school. And then a hospital. And then a home for unwed mothers and their children. Right there in the center of Lackawanna a village of charity was growing up with the red-brick and white-limestone trimmed buildings spread out eastwards down both sides of Ridge Road. A diocesan community of Religious Brothers of the Holy Infancy had been serving at the orphanage and protectorate since the time of Father Hines and they were now joined by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It was quite an empire of good works.
The bills for such an operation were enormous and despite the generosity of so many members of the Association of Our Lady of Victory, Father Baker was always scrambling both to raise funds and to conserve expenses without making the poor he served feel the pinches of poverty. One evening as he worried over the gas bill he decided to ask for a miracle. With a bit of publicity and bravado, he announced a public novena to Our Lady of Victories was to be held. In the opening ceremonies with cross and candles and incense he buried a miraculous medal. At the end of the novena he called in experts to drill where he had buried the medal. They assured him that the geological formation was all wrong—the limestone rich area precluded the presence of natural gas. They drilled, no gas. Baker told them to drill deeper. 600 feet, no gas. Drill deeper. At almost 1200 feet they found gas. The well was long a source of income for the institutions and it still supplies the various charitable institutions today.
Monsignor Baker (he was honored with the various degrees of Monsignor, culminating in the Protonotary Apostolic ad instar participantium—then the highest grade of Monsignor available outside the Roman Curia) would to anything he could to help the poor. We always hear the criticism from bitter Catholics or cynical non-Catholics that if you give enough money you can get anything from the Catholic Church. It is a nasty slur but it was pretty much true in Baker’s case—if you were giving the donations to one of the many works of charity. Local stories abound of Monsignor performing weddings in hotel ballrooms or graveside services for Protestants in Catholic cemeteries when it meant help for his orphans, his unwed mothers, his at-risk kids. Like the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, Father Baker had things in perspective and knew that there were higher values than man-made religious laws.
In 1921 having met the needs of the poor, Father Baker set out to honor his patroness by replacing the parish Church of Saint Patrick with a grand basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Victories. He asked for donations and donations poured in. The Basilica cost over 3 million dollars (almost 40 million in 2012 dollars and frankly I am surprised it could be built for under a hundred million today). Marbles were imported from all over the world. Artists and stone carvers came from Europe and around the United States. No expense was spared and every penny paid by the time it was completed for Christmas Mass in 1925.
Father Baker died on July 29th 1936. He was buried with his parents in Holy Cross cemetery, literally in the shadow of the dome of his basilica. When his cause for sainthood was introduced in the 1990’s, his remains were removed to the basilica where they lay today in a sarcophagus in the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Father Nelson Baker was a priest in the days of the Latin Mass and nuns enveloped in serge and veils. He never had a girl serve his mass. He built a Basilica that would make a rococo santuario in Rome look tawdry. He got along well with Protestants—his father had been Lutheran after all—but still he was an old-school Monsignor’s Monsignor of the old school. I don’t know how he would have dealt with Vatican II and the changes. But he was the best of the old guard—like John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great and Anselm of Canterbury, he had a passion for the poor. He was not one who judged but only served. And he knew that the law was there to empower priests to service not to serve the power of the priest. A professor from Dunwoodie (The New York Archdiocesan seminary) recently told me that all the students there talk about is wanting to be bishops and what they would do if they were the bishop and how a bishop should dress. They should be like Father Baker. He never was a bishop. Despite the various papal honors, everyone called him “Father Baker.” He was a priest and wanted to be a priest. We need more priests who want to be priests and have the heart of a shepherd not a princeling.