On May 10, Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized the heroic virtue of more than a dozen candidates for sainthood, including two Americans, the Servant of God Frederic Baraga, first bishop Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the Servant of God Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth at Convent Station, N.J. 

Missionary bishop

Bishop Baraga
Bishop Frederic Baraga in a mid-1800s image from the daguerreotype collection of the Library of Congress. CNS photo

Frederic Baraga (1797-1868) came from a comfortable middle-class family in Slovenia. By the time he was 15, both of his parents were dead and Frederic had inherited a considerable fortune. He studied at the University of Vienna, was awarded a law degree and asked a young woman to marry him. But during his years at the university he had come to know the Redemptorist missionary, St. Clement Mary Hafbauer, who encouraged him to consider the priesthood. Although he had rejected the idea initially, in 1821 Baraga decided he would enter the seminary. He broke off his engagement, gave up his inheritance and, after two years of study, was ordained a priest. 

He began ordained life as a parish priest in Slovenia, but then he experienced another dramatic change of heart: He volunteered for the Indian mission in America. His superiors sent him to an Ottawa village near present-day Petoskey, Mich. He was a successful missionary who in 28 months baptized 547 Ottawa. In 1835 he expanded his work to include the tribes who lived near the Apostle Islands and Keeweenaw Bay. 

For many years he was the only priest on Lake Superior’s southern shore. He kept a busy schedule, visiting remote Indian villages by canoe during the summer, struggling through snowdrifts in snowshoes to visit nearby villages in winter. At night he compiled an Ojibwe dictionary and grammar for future missionaries, and translated the catechism and wrote devotional books in Ojibwe for his converts. When copper and iron were discovered in the Upper Peninsula, German, French and Irish immigrants arrived to work in the mines. They became Father Baraga’s parishioners, too. To strengthen himself for all his work, Father Baraga rose at 4 every morning for meditation and prayer. 

In 1857, he was named bishop of the Upper Peninsula, the present Diocese of Marquette, Mich. As he grew older and his health declined, he gave up his snowshoes for traveling in a sled pulled by a single dog. 

On his death bed, he gave a visiting priest all the money he had — $20 — and asked the father to spend it on the Indians.

Spiritual insights

The parents of Miriam Teresa Demjanovich (1901-1927) emigrated from Slovakia to the United States, settling in Bayonne, N.J. In her teens she was drawn to the religious life, but she would not leave her sick mother. After her mother’s death, she stayed home to keep house for her father. Only after his death in 1924 did she feel free to join the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J. 

The priest who was the sisters’ spiritual director noticed that Sister Miriam Teresa was much more advanced in the spiritual life than her fellow novices. With the permission of the superior, he asked her to write on various aspects of spirituality; he read these meditations to the novices without ever saying who was the author. 

In November 1926, Sister Miriam Teresa fell seriously ill. In the first months of 1927 the doctors told her superior that her illness was fatal. On April 2, Sister Miriam Teresa was permitted to profess her vows, so that she would die a full member of the order. Death came a few weeks later on May 8. 

The next year, Sister Miriam Teresa’s spiritual writings were published under the title “Greater Perfection.” The Archdiocese of Newark opened her cause in 1945, and in 2005 sent to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes documentation of a presumed miracle attributed to her intercession: A little boy who was almost blind from macular degeneration fully recovered his sight. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is author of “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).