Even its most ardent partisans concede that the Buffalo area has hit a fallow period. Once a major Great Lakes port, Buffalo, terminus of the Erie Canal, was a gateway to the Midwest and flourished accordingly, its prosperity flavored by a rich ethnic mix and some old-fashioned hardball politics. Now the Queen City of the Niagara Frontier is a bit bedraggled – although you can still get a world-class fried bologna sandwich at DiTondo’s, one of the downtown taverns where Buffalo’s cops take their lunch. (I settled for the eight-ounce cheeseburger with onions and fried peppers, which likely sent my triglycerides into geosynchronous orbit).
Buffalo may be searching for its place in the post-industrial economy (and a cholesterol-conscious culture), but the Diocese of Buffalo has discovered what the Church always discovers in politically, economically, or spiritually troubled times: the path to authentic Catholic renewal lies in sanctity. In this instance, the path of sanctity seems to have run through Lackawanna, an old milling town just south of Buffalo. There, for many years, a remarkable man saved lives by the thousand and built an empire of charity.
Nelson Henry Baker was born on February 16, 1841 to a German Lutheran father and an Irish Catholic mother; Nelson became a Catholic at nine. After a public school education, he joined the 74th Regiment of the New York State Militia, and took part in the early phases of what became the Battle of Gettysburg. Mustered out after helping put down the New York City draft riots, Nelson Baker and a friend established a feed and grain business that quickly became a commercial success. His intelligence, drive, and business acumen would, his friends thought, take him to the top in the Gilded Age.
God, it seems, had other ideas. The thought of the priesthood kept gnawing at Nelson Baker. He completed his education at newly-founded Canisius College and then entered the seminary. During a European pilgrimage in 1874, Nelson formed a strong devotion to Our Lady of Victory, and dedicated his future priestly life to her service. Ordained in 1876, Father Baker would spend the next sixty years in a vast ministry of charity whose effects are still felt throughout the Niagara Frontier today.
Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity would eventually include an orphanage, an industrial school, an infants home, a home for unwed mothers, and a maternity hospital. In good times and bad, it was to Father Baker that those who had nowhere left to turn, turned. (Father Baker was also a pioneer of direct-mail fund-raising, drawing a bead on potential Catholic donors by getting sympathetic postmasters across the country to send him the appropriate Irish, German, and Italian names and addresses in their locales.) On his death, the Buffalo Times summed up his accomplishment:
“To the hungry during his ministry he fed fifty million meals During the depression…he was serving more than a million meals a year. He gave away a million loaves of bread. He clothed the naked to the number of a half million. He gave medical care to 250,000 and supplied medicines to 200,000 more. 300,000 men, women, and children received some sort of education or training at his hands. A hundred thousand boys were trained for trades. Six hundred unmarried mothers in their distress knocked at his door and did not knock in vain. More than 6,000 destitute and abandoned babies were placed in foster homes [because of Father Baker]…”
When he died in 1936, Lackawanna’s streets were flooded with almost half a million people, men and women he had saved, physically or spiritually – or whose parents or grandparents he had saved. His remains now rest in another of his accomplishments: the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory, near the Homes of Charity. Father Baker kept his promises – to the poor, and to Mary.
A cause for beatification was officially approved in 1987 and the man everyone knew as “Father Baker” is now the “Servant of God – Nelson Baker.” Bishop Henry Mansell and the people of the Buffalo diocese are praying for the confirming miracle that will make this extraordinary American priest Blessed Nelson Baker. I hope their prayers are rewarded, and soon.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.