Father Baker considered for sainthood

Father Baker considered for sainthood
Man of the church, man of the world

Buffalo News Staff Reporter

Nelson H. Baker, the man poised to become the Niagara Frontier's hometown saint, would have loved the irony in that. After all, Father Baker - no one called him anything else - never sought special honors. He was far too practical.

Father Baker was so practical, in fact, that he spent his entire life in Buffalo and Lackawanna, helping people who brought their problems to his doorstep. Usually those problems were unwanted children.

Now the Catholic Church is considering Father Baker for sainthood. It's an honor the faithful say would bring official recognition to his life of charity.

But you don't have to be Catholic - or even believe in God or miracles - to stand in awe of Father Baker's accomplishments. Among other things, his legacy today includes a $30 million-a-year social services business that's bigger than Catholic Charities. But just consider the time during which he lived - and what he achieved.

Born eight years before the California Gold Rush, Nelson Baker changed lives decades before the work of better-known social activists - such people as Jane Addams of Hull House, Father Flanagan of Boys Town or Dorothy Day.

It wasn't easy. Picture a time when: Unmarried mothers were scorned and shamed - but Father Baker took them in. Orphaned boys were considered worthless - but Father Baker gave them a home and an education.

Blacks were ignored or marginalized - but Father Baker befriended and included them.

Religious divisions ran deep - but Father Baker never asked anyone's faith before extending a helping hand.

For all of that, and more, Father Baker is now on the road to sainthood. But as he gets closer to that honor, the priest's legacy of charity is being re-evaluated.

Father Baker, many now believe, was more than just a man for our time. He was a man ahead of his time. And that means his legacy - even 64 years after his death - is all around us, living and growing to this day.

Father Baker lived by two simple rules - pay attention to others' suffering, and work to fix it - that turned his work into something new. His innovation was a system of cradle-to-grave care that is still being imitated today. Think your health plan has it all? Think again. Father Baker was there a century ago.

"He was really ahead of his time," said James Casion, who runs Baker Victory Services, the modern-day continuation of Father Baker's work. "He saw needs and filled them. He would say, we need to take care of this or that social problem. It was very controversial at the time."

Father Baker started with orphaned boys, like the famous Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town - who began his work in Nebraska decades later. Thousands of young boys were raised at Father Baker's orphanage, and thousands more lived in his St. John's Protectory and Working Boys' Home, which he built for older boys.

Others might have stopped there. Father Baker - a small, birdlike man with deep smile lines and a crooked Irish grin - didn't. He built schools and job-training workshops, so his boys could learn trades and find jobs when they turned 18. He opened a community hospital, Our Lady of Victory, to care for the sick and the old. He cared for mothers - married and unmarried - who couldn't support themselves and their babies. Then he cared for the infants after they were born. And he found jobs for the young women.

"They were wonderful in that place," recalls Mary Jo Hagan, 74, who was left on Father Baker's doorstep as a baby. She was later adopted into a local family. "If anybody is a saint, Father Baker is," she said. "He did so much for people. He was a true Christian."

Now, care like Father Baker's is called "continuing care." It's considered the modern way of providing complete care across an individual's life span - from cradle to grave. Father Baker pioneered the idea. A living legacy.

It's 11 a.m. on an icy December morning, and Father Baker's Boys are having coffee at a diner near Our Lady of Victory Basilica. At least, three are. More might stop by later. They treat each other like brothers, slapping backs and trading insults.

"You never got over getting hit in the head with the ball so much," says Richard "Red" Murphy, putting on his coat. Joseph Kelley, 72, shrugs off the jest. "We're close. We can't hurt each other's feelings," says Kelley, who was sent to Father Baker's Infant Home as a baby after his father died.

The boys - a close-knit group, though dwindling in number - are Father Baker's living legacy. Like brothers, they are all different - but remarkably alike. Most stayed in Lackawanna, raising families and holding blue-collar jobs in the steel mills and industrial plants. Many still belong to Our Lady of Victory parish, where they serve as ushers and help out around the church. All have stories, well-polished over the years, about their days in the orphanage and protectory.

And all say their lives were changed forever by a man who they remember best as old and frail, but always cheerful - a man who died at age 95, more than six decades ago.

"When Father Baker died and they laid him out at the foot of the big altar, people were lined up all the way down Ridge Road to Rosary Road - and they were five deep," said Gerald Schenk, 73, who today lives a few miles from the Basilica with his wife, Kathleen.

Schenk, like the other Baker Boys, has been touched in almost every part of his life by the priest's legacy. Schenk lived at the protectory until 1945, when he joined the Navy. His wife was a nurse at Our Lady of Victory Hospital. The couple adopted two children from the Infant Home.

Richard Kondrick, 69, is another Baker Boy whose life Father Baker shaped. "You learned discipline. A lot of kids didn't believe in discipline - but we did," said Kondrick, who was born in the Infant Home in 1931 to a Pennsylvania woman. "Ninety-nine percent of us kids turned out super-good."

One of those success stories was Richard V. Barry, another Baker Boy. Barry, who died last month at 76, is remembered in Lackawanna as a man who embodied the spirit of Father Baker. When as a young man he was very sick, Barry pledged to Father Baker that he would spend his life teaching in Catholic schools if the priest would cure him.

Barry got better, and he kept his promise. "He gave just like Father Baker gave," recalled Timothy Barry of his father's decades-long career as a math teacher in Catholic high schools. "He had Father Baker's spirit."

Kelley, who lived at Father Baker's until he was 18, has a theory about the inner peace and happiness of the Baker Boys. It's this: Father Baker made sure his boys - who played baseball every day, went on picnics and spent two months in the country every summer - never felt sorry for themselves.

"If you grow up in a poor neighborhood, you don't know it until much later. I feel the same way," said Kelley, finishing his coffee. His shift as a bartender at the Lackawanna Knights of Columbus, Father Baker Council, was about to begin. "I feel like I had it a lot better than I could have. We did all right."

A changing legacy Today, Father Baker's legacy is no longer centered around an orphanage and boys' protectory. It has grown to be much more. This is the new face of Father Baker: A sprawling campus of more than 30 buildings, most still in Lackawanna.

A continuing-care organization offering 38 services, ranging from care for emotionally disturbed young people to adoption services to care for unwed mothers and elderly people. Services provided to more than 3,500 individuals and families each year, with an average of 1,800 of those receiving care on a daily basis. A business with 800 employees and an operating budget of more than $30 million a year. A vision for the future that includes a $22 million expansion plan, one that will add even more jobs and services.

Take a walk through the modern-day Baker Victory Services, and this new face of Father Baker's mission is clear. "I've had the most success here. The staff here cares more," says Jaremy Klemenz, 18, who lives in Vincent House, a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed 16- to 21-year-old males built on what used to be Father Baker's farmland and gardening plots.

Nearby is St. Francis House, a home for emotionally disturbed girls. Down the street is the Dorothy Miller House, home to eight young women who are pregnant or have newborn babies and nowhere else to go.

The problems may be slightly different than they were in 1900, said Monsignor Robert C. Wurtz, vice president of Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity, the overarching corporation that includes both Baker Victory Services and the Basilica. But the mission is the same, he said.

"We're doing pretty much the same thing Father Baker did, except we're not taking care of the orphans. In place of true orphans, we're handling children who have been placed with us for special care," said Wurtz, who is also pastor of Our Lady of Victory parish. "Father Baker's legacy has not changed."

Vincent House, one of two homes for boys, is clean and bright. The walls are painted with giant rainbows. A Christmas tree decorated with lights and tinsel stands in a corner of the living room. On one wall, near the door, are goodbye messages scrawled by residents who have gotten better and left the house: "Thank you for helping me." "Came in as a whiner. Left as a man." "Father Baker, pray for us."

Klemenz, who hopes to be leaving Vincent House soon, said Father Baker's has prepared him for living on his own. Klemenz is getting his high school equivalency degree. He wants to be a photographer. And he has gained something else, too: a love for Father Baker and for Our Lady of Victory Basilica.

Klemenz works in the church four days a week, mopping and also dusting and refilling the hundreds of votive candles that are lighted every day by the faithful. "Yesterday I did 25 boxes of large candles and 12 boxes of small candles," he says. "We go through a lot of candles."

The man and the priest Nelson Baker, as a boy growing up on Broadway, was known for his love of jokes. He and his younger brother, Ransom, once switched the party flags hanging outside Democratic and Republican headquarters.

But as he grew older, his life turned serious. At 20, Baker was a drummer and a soldier in the Civil War. He saw action in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, Baker went into business in Buffalo, opening a grain and feed store that did extremely well. He was wealthy - but something was missing. In 1869, Baker entered the seminary at Niagara University. He was ordained a priest at 34.

On a pilgrimage to Europe during this time, Father Baker found the patron saint whom he honored with a massive basilica in Lackawanna nearly 50 years later. "As I knelt there praying, a great light seemed to fall upon me," Baker later wrote about his trip to Our Lady of Victory shrine in Paris. "I could both feel and understand it."

Baker had found his mission. And for the rest of his life, he pursued it with single-minded passion. "He was a no-nonsense man. He would not tolerate nonsense from his assistants. He was a man of order and principle," said Wurtz, the current pastor. "That's the mark of a person of faith."

The newly ordained Father Baker took the helm of St. Patrick's parish in Lackawanna - which he later renamed for Our Lady of Victory - when it was mired in debt. In a few years, he had paid the debts and opened new buildings to care for his infants and orphans. He invented a form of direct-mail solicitation to pay for the work - and sent his fund-raising letters all over the United States.

Always charismatic, Father Baker now seemed to work wonders. One time, he ordered drilling of a gas well where no gas was supposed to be - and struck a rich deposit that has lasted to the present day, heating many buildings on the campus.

In 1925, construction was finished on Father Baker's crowning achievement: Our Lady of Victory Basilica. Father Baker celebrated the first Mass in the Basilica at Christmastime in 1925. This Christmas Eve - today - the parish commemorates the 75th anniversary of that first Mass.

Calculating the legacy. So what has Father Baker left behind besides Baker Victory Services and an impressive marble basilica on Ridge Road? Search high and low in Lackawanna, and you won't find a soul who says anything negative about the priest, who died in 1936.

Questions being raised now revolve around whether his work will be enough to qualify him for sainthood in the Catholic Church, a labyrinthine and time-consuming process. In other words: Was Father Baker a miracle-worker - or simply a wonderful man ahead of his time?

Some wonder. The miraculous gas well, for example, is no miracle to scientists and geologists. They point to the Medina Formation, a layer of natural gas that lies under Lackawanna and other areas between Niagara and Chautauqua counties. "That's not unusual," said John K. Dahl of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "We have gas wells in that area going back to the 1800s."

Others wonder why Father Baker is depicted in marble on top of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, surrounded by a crowd of orphan boys. Would a saint put his image on top of a church? Father Baker didn't know that was going to happen, argue his supporters. It was done by those in his parish who loved him, as a surprise.

Supporters also point to the crowds - some 500,000 people, in an era of poor transportation - who came to see his body when it was laid in state inside the Basilica. They point to the newspaper stories that called Father Baker a saint, even back then.

They point to the thousands who have trekked to the Basilica since Father Baker's casket was moved last year. And the thousands more who have signed petitions calling on the Vatican to canonize him. Some people have even saved dirt from his grave site in Holy Cross Cemetery, as relics.

"I hope I live to see it. I can't wait," says Kondrick, one of the Baker Boys who was a pallbearer for Father Baker's casket when it was moved into the Basilica last year. "That was the greatest honor I ever had in my life," Kondrick says, remembering carrying Father Baker's body into the church. "I thought bowling a 300 game was something - but carrying Father Baker had to be No. 1."

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

American Sanctity: Father Nelson Baker

When they moved the body of this indefatigable, untiring priest from Buffalo, they found his blood still in ‘pristine condition.’


LACKAWANNA, N.Y. ? Msgr. Nelson Baker could possibly become the third America-born saint and the first American-born male ? and priest ? saint. He came a step closer to canonization Jan. 14, when Pope Benedict XVI declared him “Venerable Nelson Baker.”

To mark the completion of this first step in the canonization process, Buffalo, N.Y., Bishop Edward Kmiec and Msgr. Paul Burkard, head of the Our Lady of Victory Institutions, announced the news at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, N.Y. “Pope Benedict has recognized the exemplary life led by Father Baker, a simple diocesan priest, whose devotion to Our Lady of Victory and service to the least among us was extraordinary,” Bishop Kmiec stated.

Indeed, Msgr. Baker ? always known simply as Father Baker ? spent all but one of the 60 years of his priesthood serving orphans, the marginalized and the poor. A Civil War veteran and partner in a successful grain and feed business, he was ordained in 1876. Except for one year assigned to another parish, his entire priesthood was spent at his parish, first composed of a church, orphanage and protectory for young boys.

To wipe out the institutions’ huge debt and get help for those in need, Father Baker revolutionized national fundraising by founding the Association of Our Lady of Victory. Members paid 25 cents a year. Father Baker was on his way to building his “City of Charity.” 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. He opened a trade school and a Working Boys Home, then Our Lady of Victory Infant Home for infants and unwed mothers, plus a maternity hospital which he later converted into Our Lady of Victory General Hospital.

At age 79, he built one of the most magnificent European-style basilicas in the world as a gift of thanks to his lifelong patroness, Our Lady of Victory. Made of the finest materials and craftsmanship from several countries, the basilica was debt-free when it was dedicated in 1926. Father Baker had developed a deep devotion to Our Lady of Victory during his visits to her shrine at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Basilica while he was in Paris in 1874 as a member of the first organized American pilgrimage on its way to Rome.

He did even more to help people during the Great Depression, before he died in 1936 at age 94. Shortly after the official announcement from Rome, Msgr. Paul Burkard, who is also vice postulator for Father Baker’s cause for canonization, spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

How was the news received in the Buffalo area when Rome named Father Baker “Venerable”?

With great enthusiasm. In western New York, Father Baker is considered a local saint since before he died. There were legends about him even before he died: how people came to him for prayer. To show how popular he was, when he died, a half million people were at his funeral. The streets were clogged that morning. He was well-known. He established the orphanage here, the protectorate, the infant home and a general hospital in the area, mostly caring for vulnerable children in that time period. In the Depression, he also opened food lines to take care of adults out of work and those who needed food. He served thousands and thousands of meals to those who were poor. (Official estimates show that Father Baker was responsible each year for a million meals, clothing for a half million, and medical care for 250,000 others during the Depression.)

Do you still hear regularly of people’s prayers being answered through Father Baker’s intercession?

Before this announcement from Rome, we would get probably two to three notifications a month from people who believe they received a spiritual or physical favor from Father Baker. Since this happened, there are four a day. People call to tell what happened in their family in the past that they never reported. Lots of people have recollections of the past since Jan. 14.

Did you discover anything extraordinary when the Vatican recommended Father Baker’s remains be moved and re-buried in Our Lady of Victory Basilica?

His blood. When they moved the body into the basilica in 1999, they discovered when he was buried people had removed the bodily fluids, as they did for royalty in Europe, and they placed these in a small casket on top of his coffin when he was buried in 1936. When his body was moved, they discovered this casket for the first time. It had vials of his blood and body fluids still in pristine condition with no sign of deterioration or drying up of any kind. Recently, I had to review that and look at it again, and today the blood is in the same condition as the day he was moved. Rome is aware of it. Some was sent to the Vatican for study. But it can’t be used for a miracle along the canonization process. Any kind of a miracle for beatification has to be in the service of another person.

What does Father Baker being named Venerable mean for Our Lady of Victory Institutions and for the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory now?

That ratchets everything up a notch. People who come to visit become aware of the legacy, of the programs. We continue Father Baker’s legacy through Baker Victory Services, basically a social outreach to vulnerable children. Any given year, we serve 3,000 children in different degrees of special needs. The children need everything from totally dependent 24-hour-a-day care, to those who have severe learning disabilities or emotional and psychological problems.

All this is a continuation of what Father Baker began here. Overall, it is the Our Lady of Victory Institutions. Baker Victory Services is the social work arm of the program that continues Father Baker’s legacy, as do the Homes of Charity, as does the parish and the shrine.

With the new awareness, where he is in the process of his canonization, the heightened awareness of his life and cause attracts people to our institutions. It’s a wonderful way to encourage and to affirm Father Baker’s legacy and to make people more aware of what we do here. We hope that encourages them to support the work we do. People all over the world are benefactors.

At the present time we get 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a year from outside western New York. The basilica is a unique architectural gem. People come for it and to visit the tomb of Father Baker. For sure, we have more coming to visit now. People come to pray at his tomb for favors for themselves and others. Since last October we have a state-of-the-art museum honoring Father Baker’s life, and people come to visit it. The museum traces his life and ministry chronologically, a little of each program he began, and shows them in the present day. There is also a reproduction of his original room, which has his personal possessions and things belonging to his mother.

How can Father Baker inspire people and teach them virtues to imitate?

As Rome approved his heroic virtues, one of the things they concentrated on was his virtue of charity and his compassion for people in need, especially children who were vulnerable, and his sense of service and his “feel” for what people needed most in that time of life. He was the kind of guy who, whenever he saw a concern, was moved to meet it. He founded the Working Boys Home for those who had to leave here. They were in the orphan and the protectorate reform program. By law, they had to leave the property at age 17, so he founded these homes so they have rooms or apartments in Buffalo while looking for a job. Father Baker asked, “What can we do to serve people in need?” One of the women here for the announcement said it all with a great encapsulization of his life: “He showed us what we should be. He showed us how we should act and be a Christian.”

He even did much outside of Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity?

Apart from all that’s here, he also founded the first black Catholic parish in the neighborhood. Many were workers at a steel mill in Lackawanna who were Catholic or who wanted to be. It was [the parish of] St. Charles Borromeo. On top of all this, at two different times when bishops were out of the diocese, as vicar general, he was the administrator of the whole diocese outside of our institutions here. He was absolutelyuntireable. Of course, the icing on the cake was when he was 80 years old and decided to build the basilica. He tore down the parish church and personally oversaw almost every detail of the basilica itself. I think of him a lot. He was absolutely indefatigable. We can all pray to ask him, “Bless my aging process!”

Does the Rome announcement affect the work here?

We still have a program for children in a sense orphaned and a court-mandated residential program. In fact, we also have children who are so physically compromised they are 24-hour dependent for everything, from medical to hygienic care. We have a day-care program for children who have difficulties. A program for autistic children. Adoption programs, domestic and international. A home for unwed mothers and also for those with young children and in need of parental training. Things Father Baker established are still here but have developed according to the ways laws have changed. For example, we can’t have a big-building orphanage. Instead, we have 27 group homes across western New York. The format is different because of how laws changed.

Baker Services provides training in several areas of skills so the boys and girls have a skill to take with them. Father Baker did the same thing. He taught the boys farming, barbering, shoemaking, cooking, baking, so when they left here they left with skills to get a job and care for themselves. We’ve changed with the times and expanded his programs, but we’re doing exactly what he would be doing if he were alive today.

The next step would be beatification. Are you working on presenting the miracle necessary?

I hope in a reasonable time we’re going to be able to move on to beatification. We do have a miracle in front of Rome at the present time. I visit Rome yearly, and I know personally it’s actively being pursued in Rome.

Pope declares heroic virtues of Father Baker

George Richert
WIVB channel 4 Buffalo, NY
Friday Jan 14, 2011

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Catholics in western New York are rejoicing in news from the Vatican on Friday. Father Nelson Baker and Pope John Paul II are closer to sainthood.

This whole process has taken years, and it probably will take many more years, but Thursday marked a formal step in Father Baker's road to sainthood.

At the Vatican Friday, Pope Benedict XVI "declared the heroic virtues" of Father Nelson Baker. He made the declaration because of a recent vote taken by the cardinals and bishops who make up the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They have formally approved what's called the "positio," that is an 800 page summary of the life, virtues, and reputation of the man who built the Our Lady of Victory Basilica, and the institutions around it which helped poor women and children in Western New York for more than a century now.

It was 1988 when the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo first submitted a petition for Sainthood. In 1999, Fr. Baker's body was exhumed, and after 60 years, vials of his blood were still in liquid form. If the Vatican determines there is no scientific explanation for Father Baker's blood remaining in liquid form, that could be considered one miracle. One miracle would mean Fr. Baker is beatified by the church, two miracles would make him a saint in the eyes of the church. Friday's approval of the accounts of his life passes no judgment on whether or not he performed miracles.

The Catholic Diocese and officials at the Basilica are not commenting publicly until the receive the formal approval. It may still be years before the the Vatican decides whether or not to declare Father Baker a saint.

Statement of Diocese of Buffalo on Father Nelson Baker: "We rejoice today that in a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has declared the heroic virtues of Servant of God Father Nelson Baker. The decree is based on the recent vote taken by the cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints who approved the information contained in the"positio" on the life and holiness of Father Baker which we submitted at the time the Vatican accepted his cause for consideration, and which we have added to and clarified over the past few years.

This is the next step in what we hope and pray will be the eventual beatification and canonization of Father Baker.

Once we receive official documentation from the Vatican, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, bishop of Buffalo, and Msgr. Paul Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Lackawanna and promoter of Father Baker's cause for canonization will make an official announcement at Our Lady of Victory Basilica. At that time, they will also provide details of upcoming parish and diocesan celebrations to mark this important step in the canonization cause."

Father Baker another step nearer to sainthood

Lackawanna priest declared 'venerable' after review of his life is approved by pope

By Lou Michel
Buffalo News Staff Reporter
Jan 15, 2011

Father Nelson H. Baker's journey to sainthood moved forward Friday, when Pope Benedict XVI approved an 800-page review of the Lackawanna priest's life.

Father Baker, who died almost 75 years ago, has been declared the Venerable Father Nelson H. Baker. He devoted his priesthood to charitable works,helping mostly babies, children and women. He also greatly expanded Our Lady of Victory Parish in Lackawanna.

"We rejoice today that in a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has declared the heroic virtues of Servant of God Father Nelson Baker," the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said in a statement.

After the Vatican accepted the petition for Father Baker's sainthood in 1988, the priest was given the title "servant of God."

The next step toward sainthood requires the Vatican to accept a miracle attributed to Father Baker. Evidence of one is now pending before the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints; diocesan officials would not reveal details about the miracle that is being investigated.

How long it will take to make a decision on that is unknown. It could take 100 years or a much shorter period, officials with the diocese said.

The document detailing Father Baker's life was submitted in sections, with the last portion sent to the congregation in November.

Friday's decree was based on a recent vote taken by the cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the diocese explained. They approved the information contained in the "positio," describing the life and holiness of Father Baker.

If the purported miracle attributed to Father Baker is approved, that would take him yet another step toward sainthood with the title "blessed" bestowed upon him.

That's what happened Friday morning at the Vatican for the late John Paul II. After the prefect of the congregation for saints presented findings for the deceased pontiff, Benedict approved them along with a number of other findings for individuals under consideration for Catholic sainthood, including Father Baker.

If Father Baker's first miracle is certified, then the congregation must approve a second miracle. At that point, he would be canonized a saint.

Once the diocese receives official notification of Friday's actions, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec and Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory and promoter of Father Baker's cause for canonization, will make an official announcement at Our Lady of Victory Basilica on that development.

Details of parish and diocesan celebrations to mark "this important step in the canonization cause," diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan said, also will be released at that time.

Kmiec also offered his praise for John Paul II's advancement.

"From the moment he appeared for the first time as Pope John Paul II on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square in 1978 and said, 'Do not be afraid,' we had the sense we were witnessing the start of something extraordinary. What followed was a papacy of presence, witness and a call to holiness," the bishop said.

John Paul II, he said, worked "tirelessly to bring the 'good news' to all, focusing on moral values, reaching out to young people and working for peace."

In recalling that he had shared many moments with John Paul II, Kmiec said: "It was one of the great privileges and blessings to be a bishop, to have such personal contact with the holy father" being that they were both "sons of Poland."

Parishoners React to Father Baker News

By WKBW News
Jan 16, 2011

Lackawanna, NY (WKBW) After years of hard work and support, the parish that Father Nelson Baker led in the early 1900s is finally seeing and celebrating progress towards honoring their former pastor with one of the highest honors the Catholic Church can bestow; the title of Saint.

At the Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the church Father Baker helped build, Sunday mass was held as the good news from the Vatican sunk in. Friday morning, Pope Benedict XVI gave the decree of heroic virtue, affirming that Father Baker was in close union with God, and moving him closer towards canonization.

Parishoners shared their happiness and joy to see the legendary priest move closer to the great honor.

"The community has always been behind him. In light of all that he has done, the infant home, the basilica itself having built that. It's an incredible story," Michael Kipler said.

"He has helped everyone in every single possible way he possibly could. From the orphan little boys to us," Marge Morrocco added.

Father Baker died in 1936, so most parishoners never knew the priest. But now, they are in full support of honoring him as a saint.

"This community really appreciates everything that he has done for everyone. Everybody knows about Father Baker from all over," Ginny Floriano said.

Russ Plandowski said he thinks Father Baker is the perfect example to follow. "How much it means to the whole community to uplift their whole spirits. To say to themselves 'Well this man has done a lot for us, let's see what we can do for the community too,'" Plandowski said.

The process is still a long one, but if canonized Father Baker would become the first American born male saint.

"That really says a lot about him, this town, about the people that live here. I can't say enough good things about Buffalo and about Father Baker," Linda Boehm said.

"I think it would be a mark of prestige for the community. To know that somebody from this area is recognized for the goodness that he did," Ann Gossart added.

The next step for Father Baker is beatification. That comes after the Vatican certifies one miracle that he did. After a second miracle is verified, then Father Baker can be canonized and made a saint.

Buffalo News

Diocese to honor Father Baker

Bishop announces Mass of Thanksgiving to mark elevation to 'Venerable' status

By Jay Tokasz
Published:January 26, 2011

As the Vatican examines up to 2,000 cases for potential saints from around the world, the cause for Lackawanna's Father Nelson H. Baker continues to gain traction.

So much so that Diocese of Buffalo officials were caught a bit off guard by the Vatican's announcement Jan. 14 that Father Baker had completed the first stage in a three-step canonization process and had been elevated to "Venerable" status.

The overseers of the local effort to get Father Baker recognized as a Catholic saint had anticipated news from the Vatican around Easter. No matter the timing, they were thrilled with his upgrade from "Servant of God," a designation he received in 1987.

"It's a boost for the faith of the people of Western New York," said Bishop Edward U. Kmiec. "Many times, saints are from far away or from long ago. But Father Baker was around not so long ago, and he was right here in our midst."

Kmiec and Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna and vice-postulator of the cause for Father Baker, met with the media Tuesday for the first time since the Vatican's midwinter surprise.

They announced two events in March at the basilica to mark Father Baker's status as a Venerable, including a solemn vespers service March 18 and a Mass of Thanksgiving March 19, the 135th anniversary of his ordination.

Father Baker -- known across Western New York for his work with orphans and the poor and for building the network of human service agencies known presently as Baker Victory Services -- now joins a select group of fewer than a dozen Americans who are an approved miracle away from being beatified as blessed. There are 10 American saints and five American blesseds.

For many Western New Yorkers, Father Baker already is a saint. "He did what we all should do really," said Mary Ortiz of Lackawanna. "And he didn't expect any praise or gifts in return or anything like that."

Ortiz and her husband, Dave, parishioners of Our Lady of Victory, said they hear countless stories about Father Baker's good deeds and the "favors" people received by asking him to pray to God on their behalf.

"My mother knew Father Baker. She used to stand in the bread lines," said Mary Ortiz. "She always talked about him as if he were her priest, and she didn't even belong to this parish. But he was everybody's priest, whether you belonged here or not."

The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints is currently reviewing a purported medical miracle that at the diocesan level was attributed to the intercession of Father Baker. The miracle was submitted to the Vatican about 4 1/2 years ago and is detailed in an 800-page book that includes testimony from doctors. Diocesan officials declined to discuss the nature of the cure, which must defy any medical or scientific explanation to be deemed a Vatican-certified miracle.

How long the Vatican's review will take is anyone's guess, as is whether the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will ultimately agree that a miraculous cure occurred due to Father Baker's intercession.

The 34-member congregation of cardinals, archbishops and bishops has a staff of 23 to assist in delving into hundreds of thousands of pages of documents chronicling the lives and virtues of saint candidates.

"It's quite a lengthy process in any case," said Burkard, who urged people to keep praying for Father Baker. "We're hoping the case we have will proceed as quickly as possible." He said some of the roughly 2,000 people being examined for sainthood have cases that are "hundreds of years old."

Father Baker, who died in 1936 at 94, is vying to become the first U.S.-born priest to be declared a saint -- a distinction also being sought by Father Michael J. McGivney, a Connecticut priest who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882.

McGivney, whose cause is promoted by the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of Hartford, was elevated to Venerable in 2008. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is examining a reported miracle attributed to his intercession. A second confirmed miracle is required for sainthood.

All Father Baker needs is a miracle

Vatican's rigorous certification process stands between revered priest, beatification

By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News Staff Reporter
Feb 20, 2011

Stroke survivor Elizabeth Ellis and her husband, Timothy, pray at the tomb of Father Baker in Our Lady of Victory Basilica on Saturday. Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News

The doctors told Timothy Ellis that his wife, who had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma, probably wouldn't make it out of Mercy Hospital alive. A priest gave Elizabeth Ellis last rites. Tim Ellis prayed in the hospital chapel and braced himself and their three children for the devastating news.

But contrary to what the doctors expected, Elizabeth regained consciousness a day later and went on to a full recovery. That was in November of 2001, and now, nearly a decade after her stroke, the Ellises are convinced that Elizabeth is alive because of Monsignor Nelson H. Baker, Lackawanna's candidate for sainthood. "I don't have any other explanation, because the doctors themselves have none," said Elizabeth Ellis, a retired State Supreme Court secretary.

Her stunning recovery, after two Father Baker relics were taped to her legs, is part of a growing catalog of miracle stories about the beloved priest that have come to light in recent years. But is what happened to Elizabeth Ellis truly a miracle? And could it help propel Father Baker to sainthood? Simply put, a miracle is an act of divine intervention. But divining the miraculous isn't so simple. There are Vatican rules to follow and thresholds to meet.

Father Baker, known as "Padre of the Poor" for his broad charitable work, has long been revered among Western New York Catholics as a saintly man. A canonization effort in the works since 1987 reached a new level at the Vatican last month, when Father Baker was elevated to "Venerable" status.

Only a Vatican-certified miracle now separates him from beatification, with the title of "Blessed." A second miracle would propel him to sainthood. As impressive as many of the purported Father Baker miracle stories are -- a 10-year-old boy cured of leukemia, a teenager who recovered from a near fatal case of bacterial meningitis, a firefighter who awoke after nearly a decade in a semiconscious state, to name a few -- none has withstood Vatican scrutiny. Only a couple of cases have even been forwarded to the Vatican for review.

Defying the prognosis

The Vatican review is an exacting process, aimed at using the best science available to rule out worldly answers for cures. The Ellises believe there's no medical treatment that can explain Elizabeth's her recovery. Instead, they point to the moment when Elizabeth's mother, long a devotee of Father Baker, brought to the hospital a tiny remnant of Baker's clothing. Nurses agreed to tape the strand of cloth to Elizabeth's leg -- along with another family relic, a piece of a handkerchief that had been placed on Baker's hands as he lay in a coffin in 1936. Friends and family prayed for Baker's help. And then, Elizabeth defied the medical prognosis and began to get better. She ultimately recovered from what doctors later determined was a catastrophic stroke.

The Ellis case "has merit" and "was looked at pretty seriously" in the diocese, said Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, vice postulator for Baker's canonization cause. But diocesan officials more than three years ago submitted another purported miracle for consideration, and the Vatican doesn't want to examine two potential miracle cases simultaneously.

Father Baker has inspired more than 100 tips regarding possible miracle cures. Most of those tips haven't amounted to anything substantial, said Burkard, who is pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the majestic church that Father Baker built. "Actual things that look like miracles? If there were 10, that would be a lot," he said. Vatican standards regarding miracle cures date back to the mid-1700s and get tweaked periodically. First and foremost, the illness must be serious and difficult to cure. "The bottom line is this has to be a weighty issue," said Burkard. "Someone recovering from pneumonia, unless it's life-threatening, would not really be considered." The cure also needs to be instant, complete and permanent -- and with no effective medical remedy provided. Additionally, the Vatican needs to be able to confirm that the beneficiary of a miracle, or the family of the beneficiary, sought out the potential saint in question.

A problematic case

The high-profile case of Donny Herbert was thought by many to be a miraculous recovery, attributable to Father Baker's help. The brain-injured firefighter from South Buffalo spent nearly a decade in a vegetative state before waking up one day in 2005 able to converse with family and friends. During his awakening, Herbert even claimed to a priest that he had seen Father Baker in his room at Father Baker Manor, an Orchard Park nursing home, according to "The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up," a book by Rich Blake recounting the details of Herbert's brief recovery. But while Herbert's family had prayed to Father Baker for his recovery, his wife, Linda, also prayed to "every saint and holy figure on record," Blake wrote in his book.

Based on that information, if the Herbert case were forwarded, Vatican officials would have had a hard time sorting out whether Father Baker -- as opposed to some other saint -- interceded with God on the firefighter's behalf. The Herbert case would have been problematic on other fronts, too. Doctors experimented with different drugs prior to his awakening -- making it possible that medicine played a role. "You can't be clear on whether it was the medication or some kind of spiritual intervention," said Burkard. Moreover, there's the question of permanence. For Herbert, the return to full clarity lasted just 16 hours. He then fell asleep and never returned to the same level of brain function before passing away in 2006.

Cures involving children with diseases such as adolescent onset leukemia are approached cautiously, noted Burkard. Though such diseases can be serious and remissions might not be explainable in medical terms, natural recoveries have become common enough that doctors can reasonably expect them. "Many times, they sort of outgrow the problem," Burkard said. "Rome doesn't take those [cases] too seriously." Miracles need not be cures. Catholics define a miracle as an observable effect in the physical order that defies natural laws and can't be explained by any natural power other than God.

In 2000, with high hopes, the Buffalo Diocese offered Father Baker's own blood -- which remained liquefied 63 years after its burial -- as an example of a miracle.

Liquid blood rejected

But the Vatican wasn't as impressed and ultimately rejected the liquid blood, preferring a cure that could be well-documented. The purported miracle attributed to Father Baker, which remains a secret and now is under consideration at the Vatican, already has cleared one hurdle: A group of physicians in Rome has examined the case and deemed it to be medically correct, in terms of its diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.

The case now is in the hands of a second group of prominent doctors -- known as the Consulta Medica -- who will confer with each other and determine whether the cure was natural or inexplicable. "They have a kind of working committee, usually of physicians, and they ask a simple question: Is this change in this person's condition beyond what medical science can ascertain?" said Lawrence S. Cunningham, author of "A Brief History of Saints" and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "The doctors are never asked to answer, 'Is this a miracle or not?'" The Consulta Medica reviews about 40 cases per year, about a third of which survive the physicians' scrutiny, according to journalist Kenneth L. Woodward's "Making Saints," considered the authoritative book about the saint-making process. If the cure is inexplicable, the case heads to a panel of theologians who address the question of whether there is anything within the case that would be at odds with Catholic faith or morals.

Finally, the cardinals and bishops who sit on the Congregation for the Causes of Saints take a vote on whether to advance the miracle to the pope. Why are miracles needed for canonization anyway?

Conspicuous signs

A common misperception, even among many Catholics, is that the candidates for sainthood themselves perform miracles from heaven. Saints or candidates for sainthood don't perform miracles -- only God does. The saints merely intercede with God on behalf of others, according to Catholic theology, which also holds that miracles show God's hand at work in the world. "It would be one of the more conspicuous signs" of the presence of the divine, noted Cunningham. God couldn't have provided a more obvious clue for Tim and Elizabeth Ellis.

The lifelong Catholics from Hamburg say they feel privileged to have had their faith affirmed in a way that few other people get to experience. Now, they hope their story -- whether it amounts to a Vatican-certified miracle or not -- helps people understand Father Baker better. "We're a part of a bigger thing here," said Tim Ellis, a retired high school history teacher. "We were part of something that frankly I hadn't given much thought to before."

*note: Tim Ellis is a retired St. Francis HS history & economics teacher and a favorite of all my sons. His father, George, was a long time business teacher and coach at Timon HS and was instrumental in the development of the Diocesan HS formula of shared financial responsibilities with the parishes. George and Nancy

Buffalo News
Published: 12/5/2012

New Father Baker material discovered

Artifacts likely came from 1897 time capsule

BY: Jay Tokasz / News Staff Reporter

Sister Jane Muldoon’s routine for sorting through an expanding collection of Father Nelson H. Baker-related material begins with a simple question, directed at Western New York’s candidate for sainthood.

"I ask him, ‘What should I do today?’ And he tells me", said Muldoon, a retired librarian now learning the ropes as archivist of the Father Baker archives at Our Lady of Victory Institutions in Lackawanna.

Those archives include more than two dozen filing cabinets filled with details about area residents for whom Father Baker provided care, hundreds of photographs, garments and vestments worn by the revered priest, and even some comic books depicting Father Baker as “Padre to the Poor.”

This week, Muldoon got to work categorizing an unusual new find of Father Baker memorabilia – a time capsule of newspapers, magazines and other material dating back to 1897.

Baker Victory Services employees cleaning out a storage area recently discovered the long-forgotten items inside a large cast-iron safe.

Several newspapers, including a Buffalo Evening News and a Catholic Union and Times from September 1897, were stuffed inside a small metal box, along with a pewter statue of Our Lady of Victory, a sepia photograph of a middle-aged Father Baker and several early copies of “The Victorian,” a magazine launched by Father Baker and published for national distribution until about 1975.

"We couldn’t believe how well-preserved these papers were", said Sheila Walier, spokeswoman for Our Lady of Victory Institutions and Baker Victory Services.

Though no one is certain, Walier suspects the items were part of a time capsule that was sealed inside a cornerstone of the former Boys Protectory Building on Ridge Road. The building was built between 1896 and 1897.

When the building was demolished in 1961, the capsule likely was found and put in the old safe, located in a storage room across the street from the demolished site.

Walier also figures that Father Baker, who died in 1936 at 94, probably blessed all of the items before they were placed in the cornerstone.

The Vatican named Father Baker “venerable” in 2011 and is considering a potential miracle that would qualify the beloved Lackawanna priest for “blessed” status, a step leading to canonization.

The Father Nelson H. Baker Museum offers visitors a look at the life and times of Father Baker through displays, correspondence, photographs and other artifacts.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com

The Mysteries of Father Baker (2005)- John Koerner*

ISBN-10: 1879201496
ISBN-13: 978-1879201491

*John was a co-editor with Mark Denecke of the St. Francis High School newspaper and they remain friends.

The Father Baker Code (2009) - John Koerner

ISBN-10: 1879201615
ISBN-13: 978-1879201613