Nelson Henry Baker
|Born||February 16, 1842|
|Died||July 29, 1936(aged 94)|
Nelson Henry Baker (February 16, 1842 – July 29, 1936) was a Roman Catholic priest and church administrator in the Buffalo, New York area. At the time of his death in 1936, he had developed a "city of charity" under the patronage of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, New York. It consisted of a minor basilica, an infant home, a home for unwed mothers, a boys' orphanage, a boys’ protectory, a hospital, a nurses' home, and a grade and high school.
Since 1986, the Our Lady of Victory parish and the Diocese of Buffalo have been working to secure Father Baker's canonization. He has been designated "Venerable" by the Roman Catholic Church.
Early life and military service
Nelson Baker was born in Buffalo, New York on February 16, 1842 to Lewis Becker (later Baker) and Caroline Donnellan, parents who were ethnic German and Irish, during a period when the rate of immigration was increasing from Europe. He was the second eldest of four sons. His father, a German Evangelical Lutheran, was a retired mariner. Lewis had opened a grocery and general goods store on Batavia Street (now called Broadway) in Buffalo. He is said to have instilled an astute business sense in young Nelson, who worked in the store after graduating from high school in 1858. Nelson's mother Caroline was a devout Irish Catholic, and the children were all baptized and raised as Catholic. Nelson was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1851, aged 9.
During the Civil War, Baker enlisted at age 21 as a Union soldier in early July 1863 as part of the 74th regiment of the New York State Militia. His regiment, which saw duty along the Pennsylvania front at the Battle of Gettysburg, was used to help quell the New York City draft riots in 1863. Crowds of largely ethnic Irish rioted in protest of the draft; in their resentment they attacked African Americans, and their homes and businesses. Both groups competed in low-paying jobs.
After returning home from the war, Baker started a successful feed and grain business with his friend, Joseph Meyer, another veteran. He demonstrated a strong interest in religious matters and joined the St. Vincent DePaul Society. He began taking Latin classes at St. Michael's residence in Buffalo, which would become Canisius College in 1870.
Following a spiritual calling
In the summer of 1869 Baker took a steamer trip along the Lake Erie shoreline, using this time to sort out his life. By the time he returned to Buffalo, he had decided to enter the priesthood. His mother was delighted with the news; however, his father, brother, and former business partner Meyer were not sure.
Nelson Baker entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary (now Niagara University) on September 2, 1869. He was hospitalized for eighteen weeks when taken ill with erysipelas, known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire.”
During his studies at the seminary, Baker was part of a group of 108 that went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1874 to support the creation of the Papal States. On this pilgrimage, the group stopped in Paris, France and toured the Our Lady of Victories Sanctuary. Several biographers of Baker note that this visit to the Marian shrine in France was the start of his lifelong devotion to Our Lady of Victory. In Rome the group briefly met Pope Pius IX at the Vatican.
Baker was ordained on March 19, 1876 by Bishop Stephen V. Ryan at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York. He returned to Our Lady of the Angels the next day, to celebrate his first Mass. His first assignment was as an assistant to Father Thomas Hines at Limestone Hill, New York (now known as Lackawanna, New York). The parish there consisted of St. Patrick’s church, St. Joseph's Orphanage, and St. John's Protectory. Father Baker would stay at this assignment until 1881 when he was transferred to St. Mary's Parish in Corning to assist the Reverend Peter Colgan. In 1882, Father Baker was transferred back to Limestone Hill as Superintendent.
"Padre of the Poor"
A few days after Father Baker returned to Limestone Hill, a group of creditors informed the priest that the three parish institutions had amassed a sizeable debt, and they demanded immediate payment. He assured them that they would be repaid, citing his past dealings as a businessman. Using his remaining personal savings, he repaid part of the debt and entered into verbal agreements to repay the balance.
During this time, Father Baker developed the concept of "The Association of Our Lady of Victory". He took the step of writing to postmasters in towns across the country and requesting the names and addresses of the Catholic women in their area. He wrote to these women, asking for their help in caring for the children at the orphanage and protectory. They could join the "Association of Our Lady of Victory" for a donation of $.25 (25 cents) a year.
Baker started a journal, The Annals of the Association of Our Lady of Victory, in 1888 to be sent to Association members and to solicit help for the orphanage and protectory. The Annals was published until 1929, when it was absorbed by The Victorian Magazine. This publication was produced by the Homes which Baker headed, and it was published between 1895 and the early 1970s.[page needed]
Baker's approach to raising money worked, and the creditors were paid in full by June 1889. Father Baker also worked to ensure his parish did not go into debt again. In 1891, a natural gas well was discovered on the land of the Our Lady of Victory Homes, which helped to offset heating costs. Local traditional stories claim that the discovery of this gas well was a miracle.
By 1901, the number of boys at St. John’s Protectory tripled to 385, and in St. Joseph’s Orphanage, the total number of children doubled to 236. The city was attracting thousands of immigrants to work in new industries, and some were families in need.
Baker was named Vicar General of the Buffalo Diocese in 1904. Rome commended his religious leadership in 1923 by naming him Protonotary Apostolic ad instar Participantium, an honor accorded to only five other clergymen in the United States at that time.
In 1987, Baker was named Servant of God. His remains were moved from the Holy Cross Cemetery in 1999 and reinterred under the Our Lady of Lourdes altar in the Our Lady of Victory Basilica and National Shrine.
Honored in his home community as "Buffalo's most influential citizen of the 20th century," Baker was honored by a major bridge on New York State Route 5 being named for him.
Baker remains a favorite local figure in the Buffalo area because of his history of charity, and the community hopes that he will eventually be canonized.
- Roman Catholicism in the United States#American Catholic Servants of God, Venerables, Beatified, and Saints
- Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Lackawanna, New York)
- "The History of Fr. Baker", Erie Community College
- Kern, Walter. “The Life and Times of Father Baker”, Western New York Catholic, December 1989
- "Niagara Nuggets". www.niagara.edu. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-08-29.
- Pfoutz, C. (October 4, 2000). "Q: What about Our Lady of Victory?". The Marian Library/International Marian Research. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
- Thomas Galvin, A Modern Apostle of Charity: Father Baker and his “Lady of Victory Charities” (Buffalo: The Buffalo Catholic Publication Co., 1925), 21; Floyd Anderson Father Baker (Buffalo, 1960), 51
- Pronechen, Joseph (2011-02-18). "American Sanctity: Father Nelson Baker". National Catholic Register. Palm Coast, FL. Retrieved 2011-11-14.
- Heather A. Hartel, Producing Father Nelson H. Baker: The Practices of Making a Saint for Buffalo, NY, doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 2006
- Villarrubia, Eleonore. "The Servant of God, Father Nelson Baker", Catholicism.org, January 31, 2006
- Gribble, Richard (2013). "Father Nelson Baker and the Blessed Virgin Mary: A Lifetime of Devotion". American Catholic Studies. 124 (4): 1–25.