by Joseph DeGweck


As I grow older with each passing day there seems to be a natural progression of memories that are either forgotten or sometimes enhanced. I’m sure that this is an experience that we all share. As I prepared to write this article to honor an individual who exemplifies the true spirit and temperament of a father, I could not help but to reflect back to my own life and the time shared with my father.

How great and how cherished those memories are! Not that there where so many, but the fact that the few I have are so full of the true character of my father. He seemed a giant at times yet he wasn’t that big a man. My father, George DeGweck, stood about 5”11” and weighed about 190 pounds. He served in the Merchant Marines as a young man and after joining the Navy during World War II he was assigned to submarine duty in the South Pacific. After the war he did some boxing until he could secure a job that would support his family. He than worked in the factory of a local chemical company from where he retired in the mid 1970’s. As a young man I never realized that his unstructured swing shift job would retract little from the structure and security that he provided for his family. I remember the circus he took me to each year as a young boy. My father held my hand in his, secure but not tight as we walked. He would point out and teach me about downtown Buffalo and how to locate points of reference so that I would never feel lost. Once a year our family would go to Crystal Beach and my dad would join us. It was our annual family vacation together and it was the highlight of my summer. My dad loved swimming and taught me to respect but not fear the water. We shared this time together and he helped me to feel secure and protected as we road the “Blue Streak” and “Comet” rollercoaster’s into a world of excitement, laughter, mystifying pleasure and self-assurance. My father and I shared a time together that was pure, honest and inclusively jam-packed with an instinctive sense of love only a father can share with a son.

This month, “After 50 News”, would like reflect back in time, to a man who truly represents the dedicated and faithful spirit of fatherhood. We would like to revere an individual who spent his entire life as a Father to so many throughout Western New York. A man who inspirits the hopeful quintessence of the love and dedication a father has for his children. This man is the Reverend Father Nelson Baker. Born and raised on the East Side of Buffalo, Father Baker has left a positive impact on so many people throughout our community. His gentle yet assertive spirit provided the hope so many needed. A Priest first, Father Baker was also a businessman, a counselor, a guide, a protector and provider to the hundreds of thousands of people he served throughout his 95 years here in WNY.

A new book about Father Baker has just been published called The Father Baker Code by historian John Koerner. It is a sequel to Koerner’s first book, The Mysteries of Father Baker, both published by Western New York Wares. They are available in local Barnes and Noble and Borders stores. Code sheds new light on Baker’s saintly life, uncovers never before published miracles, and details the process for canonization that Baker is now on.

His Life
On February 16, 1841 or perhaps 1842, in Buffalo, New York, Nelson Henry Baker, the second of four sons was born to Lewis Baker and Caroline Donnellan. His father was a German Evangelical Lutheran and his mother an Irish Catholic. At age nine, Nelson was baptized into the Catholic faith. Working with his father at Lewis’s grocery and general goods store, on what is now Broadway, Nelson learned and became astute in the skills needed to operate a business. His mother, Caroline, profusely instructed him with the beliefs of, and a deep and passionate love of, the Catholic faith. At age 21, Nelson Baker enlisted into the 74TH Regiment of the New York State Militia. Within hours they were ordered to march to Pennsylvania and Nelson became one of tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who fought in one of the most violent and bloody battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg. After returning home Nelson Baker and his friend, Joseph Meyer opened a feed and grain business and became very successful. Five years later, at the height of his business career, Nelson told his friend Joseph that he was considering joining the priesthood. During the summer of 1869, Nelson Baker took a steam boat trip around the shores of the Great Lakes. This trip served as a catalyst that would forever change his life and launched Nelson Henry Baker on a lifelong voyage. He never lost his points of reference for serving God and the people of this community. His was a spiritual journey and he humbly accepted and sincerely remained devoted to this calling.

On September 2, 1869, Nelson Baker entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Suspension Bridge, Niagara Falls, known better now as Niagara University. He was active in every segment of seminary life. Nelson participated in theatrical events such as musicals and plays. He was an involved athlete and a successful debater but most notable of all was the dutiful development of his spirituality as recognized by his instructors and fellow colleagues. Nelson Baker was illustrious for his faith and hope and charity. His love for all and most of all, his love of God, guided Father Baker to a vocation that he would selflessly serve for the remainder of his life.

During his stay at the seminary, Father Baker was stricken with an often fatal illness; erysipelas or “St. Anthony’s Fire.” For eighteen months this young man was afflicted with sores that shrouded his body. Perhaps this was the robe of induction that sealed his faith and entrusted his soul to God, his Heavenly Father. He was administered his “Last Rites” and he stood at the brink of death. How challenged he must have felt. How humbled and weak he must have been. How great was his faith that he survived this; be it by the Grace of God. After his recovery, in 1874, Father Baker, and a group of over 100 others, took a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he visited the Marian Shrine in France. This may have been where he began his life long devotion to Our Lady of Victory.

On March 19, 1876, Nelson Henry Baker was ordained a priest at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York. His first assignment was at St. Patrick’s Church in Limestone Hill, New York which later became known as Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, New York. Father Baker served there for almost five years when in 1881 he was transferred to St. Mary’s Parish in Corning, New York. One year later he was transferred back to Limestone Hill as its Superintendent. Within days of his arrival back, Father Baker was confronted by a group of creditors who demanded immediate payment on an enormous debt amassed by the Parish. Using his remaining savings he paid back part of the debt and then envisioned the idea of “The Association of Our Lady of Victory.” Father Baker and his staff worked diligently writing letters to Catholic women in towns across the country. He asked for their support for the children under his care at the orphanage and protectory. They could join the Association for a donation of $.25 (25 cents) a year. By June of 1889, just seven years later, the Parish debt was completely paid off and the services to the people of this community continued. In 1891, a gas well was discovered on the property which housed the parish and continues today to function and provide heat needed in the operation of all of its facilities.

By 1901, St. Joseph’s orphanage had grown threefold under the directorship of Father Baker. A brand new Working Boys Home was opened in the late 1890’s to house 80 boys, 15 years and older. Here they developed employable skills and began to work in the Buffalo area. In 1907 plans were unveiled to build an infant home. This facility would offer prenatal care and adoption services for unwed mothers and their children. The first decade of the twentieth century was a time when the OLV Institution could now encompass a full gamut of life services to all ages; from birth to 15 years and older. But Father Baker had no idea of the meaning of the word respite. He now envisioned a need for a maternity hospital. In 1914 construction began and was completed in 1919. One year later it became a general hospital to serve the entire community of WNY. At age 79, in the twilight of his years, Father Baker once again envisioned another task, another duty. He was to begin construction of Our Lady of Victory Basilica.
In just four years, on his 50Th anniversary as a priest, a Father to thousands and an advocate for the needy, the Basilica was completed and completely paid for.

Then the Great Depression hit America and all that Father Baker had been entrusted in building, by the Grace of God, was requisite. During this time OLV foundation feed over one million meals a year. It provided clothing to over 500,000 people in need. It administered medical care to over 250,000 other. It became a light during a dark and frightful time. It provided hope for the hopeless.

On July 29,1936, Father Nelson Baker embarked on a new voyage to meet his Heavenly Father. His point of reference was entrenched in his dedication and faith for the God he served. He died penniless but never to be forgotten by the community and individuals he had been entrusted to aid and assist. His counsel, guidance and guardianship embellished not the man but rather the Father he served.

No reference to Father Nelson Baker would be complete without mention of how he humbled himself to become an instrument of duty that served the immaculate purpose of the God he was devoted to. Through faith, Father Baker is associated with many events that contradict the natural laws of science. Unexplainable circumstances that many consider miracles. The discovery of natural gas on the site of the OLV Institution seems unusual but more extraordinary than this is the fact of the complete recovery and almost scar less healing of the three young men injured during this excursion. Father Baker prayed with these three victims and through the same faith that began this quest, these three were healed and recovered with little scarring from the fire that occurred.

In The Father Baker Code, Koerner writes of a story from the early summer of 1936, just a month before Baker’s death, Father Baker encountered Mrs. Mary Boland of Chicago after a mass service at OLV Basilica. Mary’s daughter, Mrs. Hortense Hawkins, asked Baker to pray over her mother who had been suffering from “hardening of the arteries” today known as Alzheimer’s disease. Father Baker prayed and then pinned a medal of Our Lady of Victory onto the sweater of Mrs. Boland. He then humbly walked back to the rectory. Mary Boland’s daughter, Hortense, was astounded by the instant recovery of her mother’s wit and how all her confusion had departed from her behavior. Mrs. Boland lived the rest of her life in good mental and physical health.

Many apparitions are attributed to Father Baker. In The Father Baker Code, Koerner details a story of Baker appearing to a woman at OLV Hospital, telling her that one day she would go to Medjugorge, now known as a Holy Place where the Virgin Mary is appearing. This advice came after Father Baker’s death and years before the first sighting of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorge.

There are far too many incidents to mention in this article; but at this time I would like to thank Mr. John Koerner for all his help in providing the resources of information to validate this brief synopsis of Father Nelson Baker’s life. Mr. Koerner is a graduate of St. Francis High School. He received a MA in American History from SUNY at Brockport, graduated summa cum laude with a BA in communication/journalism from St. John Fisher College and is currently a social science professor at NCCC, GCC, and ECC. But perhaps his proudest moment when speaking to him was when he spoke of his role as the father of Grant, his two year old son. It is through John’s guidance and assistance that I was able to complete this article. For more information on the life and miracles of Father Baker you may seek out any of the books that John has written on this subject at Koerner will be speaking about his new book at the Tonawanda Public Library at 1 pm on Tuesday, June 23. He will be signing books at the Orchard Park Borders at 7 pm on June 20. You may also want to visit Our Lady of Victory Institute sometime in October 2009 to see the reopen the Father Baker Museum.

In conclusion I would like to wish all of our fathers throughout WNY a happy and memorable Fathers Day. Let us not forget the purpose for which we are here and the responsibility of fatherhood. Also I would like to reach out to all people to continue to pray for the canonization of Father Baker. He has already been recognized by the Vatican as a “Servant of God”, the first step towards canonization. Every week at several Roman Catholic Parishes throughout WNY a prayer is offered on behalf of this objective.

Join us in prayer:

Lord, you gave us Your Servant Nelson Baker as an example of service to the poor, homeless, and young, By Father Bakers’ ardent concern for those in need, inflame our hearts and lives with compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, hope for the troubled, and courage to those in doubt. We pray through the intercession of Our Lady of Victory, if it be Your will, that Your servant, Nelson Baker, may one day be canonized. Amen. ( Glory Be......3X)

Our Lady of Victory Basilica  
The Father Baker Code by historian John Koerner sheds new light on Baker’s saintly life, uncovers never before published miracles, and details the process for canonization that Baker is now on.
Koerner’s first book, The Mysteries of Father Baker.
Father Baker