Irenaeus Frederic Baraga was born on June 29, 1797 in Mala Vas in what is today Slovenia. His parents, John and Maria, died when Frederic was very young, so he lived his childhood with Dr. George Dolinar, a lay professor at the Catholic seminary in Ljubljana. Baraga grew up during the Napoleonic Wars, when France ruled his home country. As such, the official language at his school kept changing from Slovenian to German and back again, and French was spoken as well. Baraga also learned Latin and Greek in school, so by the time he was 16 years old, he was multi-lingual, a skill that would serve him well in ministering the the native peoples of North American.
Baraga graduated with a degree in law from Vienna University in 1821. Profoundly influenced by St. Clement Hofbauer, his confessor, Baraga decided to pursue the priesthood and enter seminary. He was ordained in 1823 at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana. After assignments as associate vicar in his early years of priestly ministry, Baraga answered the call of Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati, OH to come to American and assist in serving the immigrants and bringing the faith to the natives of his large missionary diocese. Baraga arrived in Cincinnati in 1831 and, after serving the German immigrants of the city initially, his skill as a linguist was recognized and he was sent up to present-day Cross Village, MI to master the Ottawa language. Baraga became fluent and wrote a book in the Ottawa language that included a Catholic catechism and prayers. In 1835, Baraga began serving the Chippewa at La Pointe, WI then, in 1843, he founded a mission at L’Anse, MI. While there, Baraga earned the nickname, “The Snowshoe Priest,” because he would walk for miles in snowshoes during the long winters to minister the people of the vast region. He worked to protect the Chippewa from forced relocation and wrote a grammar book in their language. In 1852, Baraga began keeping a diary of his missionary adventures.
Baraga was called to the bishopric by Pope Bl. Pius IX and consecrated bishop at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati on November 1, 1853. As such, he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Sault Sainte Marie, now the Diocese of Marquette, MI.
Baraga faced many challenges as bishop, not least of which was the great growth in population of his diocese because of a large number of immigrants moving to upper Michigan to work in the copper and iron mines. Baraga didn’t have enough priests to serve the exploding population. Another challenge was the great number of languages spoken in his diocese. These included not only the languages of the native peoples of the region, but of the hosts of German, Irish and French-Canandian immigrants moving in. Baraga spoke many languages, but he found few priests who could do the same. Bishop Baraga made two trips to Europe to raise money for his fledgling diocese. On one such trip, he received a jeweled cross and episcopal ring from Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria! Baraga sold them and used the money to serve his local church. All the while, Baraga continued to make his way around his diocese in his snowshoes.
Both Baraga’s diary entrees and his letters to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith were published throughout Europe and Baraga became very popular in his native continent. His writings inspired St. John Neumann to come to America. Many others were fascinated by the missionary adventures of the bishop in the far-away land of upper Michigan.
In the last ten years of his life, Baraga’s health declined. He was at the Council of Baltimore in the Autumn of 1866 when he suffered a serious stroke. Fearing that his brother bishops would not allow him to return to the rugged region of northern Michigan, he arranged for the priest who had accompanied him to carry him quickly (and literally!) to an awaiting train, where he made his journey back home. His health recovered some, but he died on January 19, 1868.
Baraga’s sanctity was recognized by all in his diocese, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In spite of blizzard conditions, the Cathedral of St. Peter was filled to overflowing for his funeral on January 30. The people knew that a saint had lived and served among them.
Baraga’s cause for canonization was opened in 1952 and he was declared “Venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI on May 10, 2012, meaning that an investigation found that Bishop Frederic Baraga lived a life of heroic virtue. An investigation into a healing attributed to the intercession of Ven. Frederic Baraga of a patient from a liver tumor is on-going and would, if proven, be a miracle that could lead to Baraga’s beatification.
O God, thank you for the life and holiness of your servant, Frederic Baraga. I pray you will honor him by the title of Saint. He dedicated himself completely to missionary activity to make you known, loved and served by the people who you love. As a man of peace and love, Baraga brought peace and love wherever he traveled. Lord, grant Venerable Bishop Baraga the grace of beatification. We ask this in Christ name. Amen
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.