Baraga — ‘Snowshoe Priest’

He trudged the shores of Lake Superior and the frozen paths of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the middle or the 19th century, spreading the Christian faith among the native Americans while also establishing missions and schools. His name was Bishop Frederic Baraga, priest, missionary, linguist, pioneer and giant of the Faith. He put the spoken tongue of the Ottawa and Ojibwa tribes into the written word so they could better communicate the meaning of God’s love in Christ.

Some also say he performed miracles and now they are asking the Church to have him canonized a saint. And while some may count the miracles, others may count the winters as the northern “snowshoe priest” travels the long road toward possible sainthood. He was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI on May 10, 2012.

“There isn’t much doubt in our minds. We believe he is a saint,” says Father Guy Thoren of the Sacred Heart Church in L’Anse, Mich., where Baraga built his last mission. Father Thoren’s mother was part of the move to canonize Baraga that began more than 40 years ago. Since then, the Church has approved his writings. Now, for the beatification process to proceed, it must accept the miracles.

“Either it will be very soon or it will be an extremely long process,” says Regis Walling who works for the Diocese of Marquette and who, for the past six years, has been gathering material to send to Rome. While Walling works for the diocese, an elderly couple, Pat and Myra Ellico, keep the faith by working at the Baraga Shrine gift shop where they sell a wide assortment of books, gifts and refreshments to tourists and tell stories over hot tea and cookies to anyone who will listen.

Venerable Frederic Baraga was born June 29, 1797 in the castle of Mala vas, the son of wealthy landowners in Slovenia, a nation that was once part of Yugoslavia. He left there as a young priest in 1830 to establish missions and schools among the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians of Lake Superior and Upper Michigan. He spent 23 years among them, traveling hundreds of miles by snowshoe during the long winters, spreading the Gospel and translating the spoken languages into writing.

Bishop Baraga used Indians as guides, and sometimes they were his rescuers when he was found wandering in circles in the winter wilderness. His feats are legendary to the point where a county, a town and a state park are now named after him. In addition to this, shortly after his arrival in Marquette, Bishop Baraga worked to establish a Catholic school, which later became Bishop Baraga School (1905-1969).

The Slovenian people also remain keenly aware of their native son and send representatives to Marquette each year for ceremonies honoring him. In Nov. 1, 1853, Baraga was consecrated first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette, the boundaries of which encompass the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He died on Jan. 9, 1868.

Many people believe the Ottawa and Ojibwa tribes would have moved west or simply disappeared if it hadn’t been for this dedicated priest. Walling says, “He helped save them by giving them a written language.” Donald LaPointe, a 60-year-old Ojibwa, grew up with the Baraga legend handed down by his ancestors. LaPointe says, “One of my earliest memories was seeing a picture of him.”

The faithful bishop built both schools and homes for the Ojibwa and purchased some 500 acres of land for the tribe. Just recently, the Keweenaw Bay Tribe obtained the deed for the land from the Marquette diocese. Today Bishop Baraga’s outpost at L’Anse is surrounded by an Ojibwa reservation where children read their history in the language that Baraga penned for them a century and a half ago. Schoolchildren go to the shrine to burn candles. A state plaque marks an ancient Indian trail that leads south into northern Wisconsin.

Many think that the good bishop’s own life was the greatest evidence of the miraculous. Traveling from L’Anse to Duluth, Minn., (a trek of over 200 miles) on snowshoes, his eyes frozen shut, he survived without harm. The diocesan office says that there are about 110 recorded miracles, and it has sent such information to the Vatican.

But the Catholic community has not waited for Rome to answer for them to begin sending prayers to Baraga. The faithful carefully pass among themselves relics of his existence such as thread from his woolen socks and splinters of wood from his burial casket.

If the miracles are accepted, his writings must be presented in a document that explains the content of his work. Then the real journey begins as the Vatican considers him for veneration, then beatification, then canonization.

Whatever the outcome, the name and memory of` Bishop Baraga will live in the hearts and minds of the people of the northern woods — a priest who dedicated his life to his faith and to others. TP 

Dr. Dickson, Ph.D., is a Lutheran parish pastor, college chemistry professor and freelance writer who lives in Hickory, North Carolina.

Highlights in Frederic Baraga's Life
Young Frederic Baraga grew up during the Napoleonic Wars, when France, by the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797), took over the Slovene Lands from the Austrian Empire. During this time the official language in his schools changed several time between Slovenian and German. Latin and Greek, too, were required subjects for students. By age 16, Baraga was multilingual: a skill he would put to good use later in his life.