Nelson Baker was born on February 16, 1842 to Lewis Becker and Caroline (Donnellan) Baker. His father, who changed his name to Baker, was German Lutheran and his mother Irish Catholic. Their children were baptized and raised Catholic, though Nelso was not baptized until the age of 9. Lewis Baker opened a grocery and general goods stor after immigrating to America and Nelson worked there after he graduated from high school. At the age of 21 in 1983, Nelson joined the U. S. Army and fought at Gettysburg during the Civil War. His unit also was employed to quell the Irish draft riots of New York.
After the Civil War, Nelson opened a feed and grain business with his friend and fellow veteran Joseph Meyer. The business was successful, but Nelson was left unsatisfied. He had taken an interest in religion and on 1869 took a trip on Lake Erie to clear his thinking about his life. On his return, he announced that he intended to enter seminary and study for the priesthood. While his mother was delighted, his father and his business partner were less enthusiastic.
Nelson entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary in 1869 and was one of a group of more than one hundred seminarians who traveled to Rome to support the sovereignty of the Papal States. While in Rome, the group met with Pope Bl. Pius IX. They also visited pilgrimage sites, including Our Lady of Victory Sanctuary in Paris. It was this visited that sparked in Nelson a life-long devotion to Our Lady of Victory.
Nelson Baker was ordained on March 19, 1876, the Feast of St. Joseph, at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo. He was first assigned to St. Patrick Church in Limestone Hill, NY, then to St. Mary Church in Corning, NY, then back Limestone Hill. The parish at Limestone Hill consisted of the church, St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and St. John’s Protectory (which took in abandoned or troubled children and offered shelter and education). Shortly after arrival in 1882, Fr. Baker was informed that all three of these institutions were deeply in debt and that the creditors were demanding immediate repayment. Fr. Baker used the remainder of his personal savings to pay off part of the debt and struck a deal with the creditors to repay the balance, offering his experience as a successful businessman to gain their trust.
During the 1880s and 1890s natural gas had been discovered in the Buffalo area. Fr. Baker came up with the idea of drilling for natural gas on land owned by the Limestone Hill parish. As was his custom when he required guidance and grace, he spent the night praying before the statue of Our Lady of Victory he had brought home from France. As he finished his prayers, he would pat Our Lady on the cheek and say, “Now there it is, dear Lady. I know you will take care of it.” Fr. Baker approached his bishop about funds for the drilling project. At first incredulous, Fr. Baker’s reputation for finding money where there seemingly was none inspired the bishop to support the project. On the day the workers came out to drill, Fr. Baker led a procession of altar boys, Sisters and Brothers praying the rosary. They stopped at a point in the field. Fr. Baker sprinkled the area with holy water, took out a small statue of Our Lady of Victory, and buried the statue in the ground. He told the workers, “Drill here, but do not disturb the statue.”
After several days and several hundred feet of drilling without success, locals began referring to the project as “Father Baker’s Folly.” Finally, however, with more investment from the bishop, natural gas was discovered at just over 1100 feet below the surface. It was enough to meet the needs of the parish, the orphanage, the protectory, and several nearby residences, as well!
Fr. Baker also created The Association of Our Lady of Victory, and wrote to the various postmasters across the country asking that they provide the names and addresses of Catholic women in their communities. (Of course, nothing like this could be done today!). Fr. Baker wrote these women and offered them to opportunity to join the Association for the annual contribution of 25 cents, which would be used to support the ministries at his Limestone Hill parish. He also began a journal, The Annals of the Association of Our Lady of Victory to keep members informed. The plan worked! Fr. Baker was able to pay off the entire debt of the parish, orphanage, and protectory by 1889.
Buffalo continued to attract immigrants, many of them poor. By 1901, St. Joseph’s Orphanage had increased to over 230 children and St. John’s Protectory to almost 400. Fr. Baker was named Vicar General of the Diocese of Buffalo in 1904 and was honored by the Vatican for his leadership in 1923 with the title Protonotary Apostolic ad instar Participantium.
Father Baker’s many charitable deeds were not unnoticed by the people of Buffalo. Along with the Orphanage and Protectory, Fr. Baker created a home for pregnant women and their children, he provided food and other needs to striking workers in 1919, he always carried a roll of money in his pocket for those who knew they could approach the kind priest for a few dollars to pay for food, rent, medical expenses, or other needs. Fr. Baker took criticism for his efforts at evangelizing African-Americans who moved to Buffalo by the thousands and were drawn to Catholicism by Fr. Baker’s love and charity. A grop of doctors approached Father about building a general hospital, and with Father’s support were able to do so. Finally, Fr. Baker, in his eighties, realized his dream of building a church in honor of Our Lady of Victory. By this time, his supporters were legion and they came through for him in providing donations to build the church. When the church was completed in 1926, it was fully paid for. Pope Benedict XV elevated the church to the dignity of a basilica.
Father Nelson Baker died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 29, 1936, in a bed in the hospital he had built. Many miracles were attributed to Fr. Baker, both during his life and after his death. One such miracle involves that of a steelworker whose arm had been nearly cut in two lengthwise, from his armpit to his hand. During the viewing of Fr. Baker’s remains after his death, the steelworker went through the long lines several times, each time as he reached Fr. Baker’s casket he would lift his bad arm with his good arm on the priest’s body, praying for restoration of the use of his arm. Several weeks after Fr. Baker’s burial, the man’s arm was restored to full use with no medical explanation.
Fr. Baker’s cause for canonization was officially opened in 1987, and he was given the title Servant of God. In 2011, Pope Benedict declared that Fr. Baker lived a life of heroic virtue and bestowed on him the title Venerable. In 1999, when his remains were transferred from Holy Cross Cemetery to the basilica he built, three vials of blood were removed. After sixty years in the grave, the blood was still liquid! The vials of blood were sent to Rome in hopes that this case would serve as the miracle leading to Fr. Baker’s beatification.
Fr. Baker composed a prayer to Our Lady of Victory:
O, Victorious Lady, thou who hast ever such powerful influence with thy Divine Son in conquering the hardest of hearts, intercede for those for whom we pray, that their hearts being softened by the rays of Divine Grace, they may return to the unity of the True Faith, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.