Pope Benedict officially recognized the heroic virtues of 20th century American priest Fr. Nelson Baker, which moves the beloved champion for the poor further along in the process towards sainthood.
Fr. Baker – who was born in Buffalo, New York in 1842 – lived to be 95 years old and is heralded for building what's been called a “city of charity” in Lackawana, New York. By the time of his death in 1936, his initiatives for the poor included a minor basilica, an infant home, a home for unwed mothers, a boys' orphanage, a hospital, a nurses' home, and an elementary and high school.
On Jan. 14, Pope Benedict recognized the heroic virtues of Fr. Baker, which is the second step in the priest's cause for canonization. After a candidate is initially listed as a Servant of God, the promoter of the cause must prove that the candidate lived heroic virtues. When documents and testimonies are presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, and the candidate is approved, he or she earns the title of "Venerable.” Two documented and medically authenticated miracles are then needed, one for beatification and one for canonization.
“Father Baker was known for his tremendous works of charity during his 60 years of priesthood,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York said on Jan. 14. Archbishop Dolan expressed delight in the Pope's action on his blog, “The Gospel in the Digital Age.”
The Diocese of Buffalo said on Friday that they “rejoice” at the news , adding that the latest move “is the next step in what we hope and pray will be the eventual beatification and canonization of Father Baker.”
After his upbringing in Buffalo in the late 19th century and a period of enlistment as a solider in the Civil War, Fr. Baker enjoyed economic success running a feed and grain business with his good friend Joe Meyer. He often spent much of his time and money, however, contributing to the local Catholic orphanage. Despite the apprehension of his father, brother and business partner – yet to the delight of his mother – he eventually discerned that he wanted to join the priesthood.
Though he was a good 10 years older than most of his fellow seminarians, Fr. Baker relished his experience in the seminary, earning top marks in his studies, organizing sports and drama events and being considered a leader by his peers, noted Sister Mary Monica of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in her biography of the priest. During his time at the seminary, things took a brief turn for the worse when a bout with erysipelas – a disease that could be cured with antibiotics today, but in the nineteenth century was often fatal – hospitalized him for 11 weeks and threatened to take his life.
He slowly recovered, and eventually went on a pilgrimage to Rome with his fellow seminarians in 1874, stopping at the Shrine of Our Lady of Victories in Paris. It was there he began an intense Marian devotion that would influence the rest of his life's work.
Fr. Baker was ordained a priest in 1876 and was assigned to be the superintendent of a group of Catholic institutions at Limestone Hill – an area now known as Lackawana – which were wracked with insurmountable debts. Using his business savvy, Fr. Nelson gave every penny of his savings to the institutions and hand wrote thousands of letters imploring Catholics to become members of the "Association of Our Lady of Victory" for a fee of 25 cents a year. Over the years, his tireless work helped the facilities flourish.
After decades of unyielding service to the community, Fr. Baker died in 1936 at the age of 95. He was named a Servant of God in 1987 by the late Pope John Paul II, and his legacy lives on in the current work of Our Lady of Victories Institutions, which annually serves more than 3,500 children and families in need.