On Jan. 14, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI put another American on the path that could lead to sainthood. On that day, with the approval of the pontiff, the Congregation for Saints’ Causes issued a document declaring Father Nelson H. Baker “Venerable.” 

War and priesthood 

Nelson Henry Baker was born Feb. 16, 1842, in Buffalo, N.Y., then a booming town of 20,000. His father was a grocer and a Protestant; Nelson acquired the Catholic faith from his Irish mother, Caroline. 

Two years into the Civil War, in June 1863, 21-year-old Nelson enlisted in the 74th New York Infantry Regiment. He had his first experience of battle almost immediately — within days of his enlistment, Nelson and his comrades in the 74th were sent to Pennsylvania where they fought at Gettysburg. A week or so after the battle, the 74th was rushed by train to New York City to quell the Draft Riots. In reaction to a draft law, which Irish immigrants believed fell disproportionately hard on them, thousands of Irish men and women were rampaging through the streets, lynching African-Americans, attacking police officers and looting private homes and businesses. 

After the war, Baker and a friend opened a feed and grain business. It was a success, but Baker felt himself drawn to the priesthood. In 1869, he sold his half of the business to his partner and entered Our Lady of the Angels Seminary (now Niagara University). 

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1876 and assigned to St. Patrick’s parish in Limestone Hill, N.Y. (since 1909, the town has been known as Lackawanna). In addition to the church, the parish operated an orphanage and a “protectory” for boys who were, according to one source, “inclined to truancy and willfulness.” Except for a brief hiatus in 1881, Father Baker would spend the rest of his life serving the people of Limestone Hill. 

The mailing list 

To his dismay, Father Baker found the orphanage and protectory were $56,000 in debt — an enormous sum at a time when most working men and women were delighted to be paid a dollar a day. Using what remained of his profits from the feed and grain business, he paid a portion of the liability, but the balance was still substantial. 

To raise funds, he wrote to Catholic women across the United States, inviting them to join a new organization established to care for the orphaned and troubled children of his parish — the Association of Our Lady of Victory. The fee for membership was 25 cents per year. 

It was the first direct-mail appeal in American history, and it worked. The women on Father Baker’s original mailing list told relatives and friends, and soon the association was generating so much income that Father Baker paid off the debt and had enough money to expand his facilities. By 1901, the protectory housed 385 troubled boys and the orphanage housed 236 children. 

Like St. Vincent de Paul, Father Baker, who earned the nickname “padre of the poor,” opened new charitable institutions as the need arose. At age 15, boys were released from the protectory, but Father Baker worried that on their own they might return to a life of crime. He opened the Working Boys Home as a wholesome environment for teenagers and young men who had jobs in nearby Buffalo.  

A news report that the bones of an infant had been recovered from the Erie Canal led Father Baker to open the Infant Home, which offered a residence and prenatal care to single mothers, and arranged adoptions if a mother did not want to keep her child.  

In 1920, Father Baker added a full-service hospital to what the press hailed as his “City of Charity.” 

The basilica 

From his early days as a priest, Father Baker had been devoted to the Blessed Mother under her title Our Lady of Victory — in all of his ambitious undertakings he relied on her intercession. In 1921, to pay tribute to the many graces he had received through Mary, Father Baker announced that he wanted to build a grand church dedicated to Our Lady of Victory. He was 79 years old at the time, and his friends and supporters believed that this would be the final great project of his life. 

The office of the Association of Our Lady of Victory was flooded with contributions — so much so that the church was completed in only five years, and Father Baker paid for the construction and decoration of the church — all $3.2 million of it — in cash. 

Father Baker celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination in the new church. A few months later, Pope Pius XI designated the Church of Our Lady of Victory a minor basilica.

Great Depression 

When the stock market crashed in 1929 and America sank into the Great Depression, tens of thousands of people in western New York turned to Father Baker’s City of Charity for help. In spite of the hard times and his own advancing age — Father Baker was 87 in 1929 — he spent long days collecting contributions of food and clothing. It is estimated that during the Depression the Association of Our Lady of Victory served 1 million meals, clothed 500,000 people and treated 250,000 hospital patients free of charge. 

In July 1936, Father Baker, worn out by his exertions, entered the hospital he founded. He died there on July 29, 1936; he was 94 years old. Approximately 400,000 people filed past his coffin, and tens of thousands lined the streets to see his funeral procession. 

Father Baker’s legacy continues through Baker Victory Services, which offers medical care for women and children, homes for hard-to-place youths and children with developmental disabilities, adoption and foster-care services, as well as job training. 

Since 1999, the remains of Father Baker have rested in a black marble sarcophagus in the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory. His tomb is located in a side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and every day dozens of the faithful come to Father Baker’s tomb to pray for his intercession. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95) and Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series.

American Examples (sidebar)

As of this writing, the United States has seven saints and five blesseds. There are also eight venerables and at least 28 other American candidates whose causes have been proposed by family, friends and supporters. 

The youngest American candidate for sainthood is Audrey Santo (1983-2007) of Worcester, Mass. At age 3, Audrey survived a fall into a swimming pool, but she suffered akinetic mutism: she could move her fingers and eyes, but she could not speak. During her life many extraordinary, possibly supernatural, events were associated with her. On Sept. 11, 2008, Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester opened the cause that may lead to Audrey’s canonization.  

In 2008, the Kear family of Wichita, Kan., reported that through the intercession of Father Emil Kapaun, their 20-year-old son, Chase, had inexplicably recovered from what should have been a fatal pole-vaulting accident. Father Kapaun (1916-1951) was a U.S. Army chaplain during the Korean War who risked his life to drag wounded soldiers to safety during battle. In November 1950 Father Kapaun and approximately 1,000 American troops were captured by the North Koreans. In the prison camp, Father Kapaun stole food from the prison camp guards to keep his comrades from starvation. Father Kapaun died in the camp. The reported healing is under investigation. 

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared Mother Henriette Delille (1813-1862) “Venerable.” She was a New Orleans Creole who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a community of African-American sisters who cared for the sick and the elderly, and taught black and mixed-race children.