The Our Lady of Victory (OLV) Basilica has been on our ‘exploring the burned over district bucket list’ for quite some time and for various reasons we have been unable to go…until now. The Basilica is technically in Lackawanna, New York, which today has more or less been usurped by Buffalo; however, there was a time that Lackawanna itself was its own distinct entity, which I will explain more about later on. Because Chris and I had been exploring other sites in Buffalo proper that day, we drove south to get to Lackawanna. This is relevant because for any of you that have not seen the OLV Basilica, I recommend you get there the same way we did, which is driving south on Route 62 (South Park Avenue). If you go this way, as you head south, you will begin to see the spires and copper dome of the Basilica creeping up on the horizon and let me tell you, it is quite a site to see. The size and enormity of the Our Lady of Victory Basilica is simply amazing!
Chris and I eventually found a parking space (it is actually located behind the Basilica; go figure) and walked around to the front to take some pictures. The OLV Basilica is located at 767 Ridge Road, on the corner of Ridge Road and South Park Avenue, which today is a fairly busy intersection. I really cannot detail our trip any further without mentioning the name of Monsignor Nelson H. Baker, commonly called “Father Baker,” who is the creator of the OLV Basilica and much of the surrounding neighborhood. Going east on Ridge Road, on the north side of the street, you will see many of the other institutions that Father Baker created or at least what still remains of them, and then on the south side of Ridge Road is Holy Cross Cemetery, where Father Baker used to be buried and his mother and father still are. Basically the entire neighborhood is there because of one man and part of the street today is memorialized to him and is known as Father Baker Boulevard. One of the more peculiar looking buildings is actually behind the Basilica by the parking lot and I pointed it out to Chris stating that it resembled a building you would find near a power plant or electrical grid. I asked Chris if he had heard of the Basilica having its own power source but he had no idea. I would later find out how true my prediction actually was!
While the OLV Basilica is an actual house of worship, it has also become a pilgrimage holy site since Father Baker is actively in the process of canonization to be a saint. In order to help promote Father Baker’s story, the Basilica had the Father Baker Museum renovated and enlarged in 2009 and is currently located in the basement, along with a well-stocked gift shop. The sanctuary itself is highly ornate and simply enormous. Plus, it is a basilica, which in itself is quite a feat since there are not very many in Upstate New York (but Chris and I have been to 3 out of 4 of them!). An easy explanation of the differences between a basilica and a cathedral is that a basilica is a church that has been accorded certain privileges by the Pope and a cathedral is a church that is led by a Bishop. All basilicas in the US are considered ‘minor basilicas,’ but it is still considered quite an honor of distinction. The word ‘basilica’ literally translated means “House of the King” and in all basilicas today, there are three special symbols that can be found within them. At the opposite ends of the front row of pews there is the tintinnabulum, which is a small gold bell surrounded by a golden frame crowned with the Papal tiara and keys. If the Pope were to say Mass within the basilica, the tintinnabulum would be used to lead the procession down the center aisle. On the other side is the canopeum, and this is a symbolic shield of protection for the Pope during his travels. The canopeum remains open anticipating the Pope’s arrival. Those two items, along with the Papal Coat of Arms, hanging just above the basilica’s main entrance, signify the shrine’s sacred place within the Catholic Church, and its relationship to the Holy Father.
Chris and I went in and found out where the open tour started and waited for our tour guide to appear. (Yes, you read that correctly…The OLV Basilica has open tours every Sunday at 1pm and also 2pm…for free!) However as we learned, this may not always mean a tour guide shows up because we waited…and waited…and waited. Eventually some guy saw that we had been standing around for awhile and asked us what we were doing. We explained to the man we were there for the tour and he seemed quite surprised that a tour guide had not shown up yet so he volunteered to look into it for us, since he was actually an usher at the Basilica but just “off duty.” This man went downstairs to the museum to inquire, but quickly returned and explained that apparently the guide was not coming. Sensing the look of annoyance at least on my face (and also probably Chris’s even though he is better at hiding it than me), this man again volunteered to help us and offered to “show us around a bit” and introduced himself as Frank. Chris and I have been extremely lucky during our travels to meet very friendly and gracious individuals who absolutely love their houses of worship and will take as much time is needed to show complete strangers around. This fact does not go unnoticed by Chris and I and we are very grateful to have met these folks in our travels, and to have met Frank on this day.
Before I go any further, I must now tell a condensed version of the story of Monsignor Nelson Baker in order for the reader to truly understand what a labor of love Father Baker had in building the Our Lady of Victory Institutions and what a saint Father Baker truly was and is, even today.
Nelson H. Baker was born on February 16, 1842, in Buffalo, NY and was the second oldest of four boys. Nelson’s mother was a devout Irish Catholic and Nelson himself was baptized at the age of 9-years-old. As a young man, Nelson served as a Union soldier during the Civil War and saw combat in the Battle of Gettysburg. Also as a member of the military, Nelson Baker helped impede the New York City draft riots. Upon his return home to Buffalo, Nelson started and successfully operated a feed and grain business and was able to make quite a bit of money for the time. Nelson eventually left this business to explore his strong interest in religious matters and entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary (now Niagara University) in 1869. During his time at the seminary, he paid his own way to be part of a pilgrimage to Rome in 1874 to support the creation of the Papal States. On this pilgrimage, the group stopped in Paris, France and toured the Our Lady of Victories Sanctuary, which many believe led to Nelson Baker’s lifelong devotion to Our Lady of Victory. Nelson Baker was eventually ordained on March 19, 1876 by Bishop Stephen V. Ryan at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, NY. His first assignment was as an assistant to Father Thomas Hines at Limestone Hill, New York (now known as Lackawanna, New York, and is literally the corner where the current OLV Basilica now stands). The parish there consisted of St. Patrick’s church, St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and St. John’s Protectory. Father Baker was transferred to St. Mary’s Parish in Corning, New York, but was then transferred back to Limestone Hill in 1882 as the new Superintendant, which was the beginning of Father Baker’s legacy in Lackawanna, NY.
Almost immediately upon taking over, Father Baker was confronted by the sizeable debt that the facilities on Limestone Hill had accumulated over the years and the creditors now demanding payment. Father Baker used his own personal savings from his prior business to pay off part of this debt and verbally agreed to pay off the remaining balance. In order to do this, Father Baker created “The Association of Our Lady of Victory.” This consisted of Father Baker writing to postmasters in towns across the country and requesting the names and addresses of the Catholic women in their area. Once he received these addresses, Father Baker wrote to these women directly and asked for their help in caring for the children in his care at the orphanage and protectory, by offering them membership in the “Association of Our Lady of Victory” for a donation of $.25 cents a year. This was the very first time that donations were solicited via mail (seems very common place in today’s world) and we have Father Baker to thank for this ingenious idea. Through this process, Father Baker paid off the remaining debt by 1889.
As another means of cost cutting, Father Baker came up with the simply insane idea to drill for natural gas on Limestone Hill. There were absolutely no prospects of natural gas being even remotely close to Limestone Hill and everyone thought Father Baker had lost it. Plus, the only thing Father Baker relied on in this endeavor was his faith in the Our Lady of Victory; so with his belief in the Holy Mother, Father Baker paid thousands of dollars he did not have to start the drilling process, basically in the middle of nowhere. Drilling went on for weeks, all to no avail, with many people, including the Bishop at the time, beside themselves with worry at the new financial hardship Father Baker was putting them in. Then, from out of nowhere, and much to everyone’s surprise (except Father Baker’s) a pocket of gas was struck deep in the ground, creating an enormous fireball that shot up several stories above the Earth, burning several workers and children in the process. Fortunately, despite severe burns, nobody was killed and the flame was eventually extinguished. Remember that building I mentioned that looked out of place at the beginning of this post? Well, today it is the remaining vestige of the gas well that has existed on Limestone Hill, which helped Father Baker off-set heating costs for his growing complex of buildings. In the eyes of many, this finding of gas on Limestone Hill is considered a miracle, all due to Father Baker’s devotion to the Our Lady of Victory.
It would not be a far stretch to say Father Baker helped create the town of Lackawanna we know today. Limestone Hill was but a hamlet of the Town of West Seneca, but due to the amount of mail Father Baker was bringing in and out of the post office in Limestone Hill, plus the amount of jobs he helped create due to new institutions he was building, the area of West Seneca that encompassed Limestone Hill became a large area that began to rival Buffalo itself. Realizing this, a new town was then created, but this new town needed a new name. Father Baker suggested Victoria as a name, after Our Lady of Victory, but ultimately the name Lackawanna was chosen. With the advent of the steel industry, Lackawanna continued to prosper and grow exponentially. During the decades that Father Baker was in charge of the affairs of Limestone Hill, Father Baker founded and managed several institutions, some of which still exist in Lackawanna today, despite the once thriving steel industry being all but non-existent. Some of the more notable examples are:
- St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, which cared for approximately 200 boys during the year
- Our Lady of Victory Infant Home, which cared for a total of 6,500 infants and small children
- Our Lady of Victory Hospital, which cared for more than 3,000 people during any given year, many of whom never paid anything for their services
- St. John’s Protectory, which cared for “hundreds of homeless, abandoned, neglected, or wayward boys”
- Several trade schools that taught tailoring, barbering, carpentry, glazing, laundering, plumbing, electrical work, shoe making and repair, photography, painting and printing
- And of course the Our Lady of Victory Basilica
Father Baker made it clear that the Infant Home was for boys from infancy to five years of age, the Orphan Home was for boys ages five to 10 and the Protectory was for adolescents boys 10 – 15 years of age. The term “Father Baker Boys” became common vernacular for the times, and it was not uncommon for police in California to put young boys on the train with a sticker on their shirt that said “Father Baker boy” and people would understand this child was going to Buffalo, NY to live with Father Baker. (It also became a threat from parents to their children, of “If you don’t do as I say, I will send you to go live with Father Baker!) Every day Father Baker would go to the train station to pick up any wayward boys that had found their way to Buffalo, NY for a place to live.
The creation of the Our Lady of Victory Basilica was always something that Father Baker openly shared was his ultimate dream, but when the existing St. Patrick’s Church burned down, Father Baker began to make his dream a reality. Again, Father Baker utilized mail-order solicitations, this time asking for larger donations and by 1921, ground was broken for what was designed to be a shrine to the Holy Mother, Our Lady of Victory. Four years later, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory held its first mass on Christmas Day in 1925. Much to everyone’s surprise, the brand new shrine was then very quickly consecrated. In order for a church to be officially consecrated, the church must be completely paid off, which most never achieve, but Father Baker actually had the entire shrine paid off in 17 months! Two months after this consecration, via an apostolic decree, Pope Pius XI designated the shrine with the honorable title of “Minor Basilica,” re-naming the shrine The Our Lady of Victory Shrine and Basilica.
In time, Father Baker became known as the “Padre of the Poor” and his institutions became known as the “City of Charity.” Baker would often carry around cash in order to give it to those who simply asked for it, even if the same person came back repeatedly again and again. Soup kitchens, free clothing and lodging were provided in numerous locations during the Great Depression. While in his early 90s, during the years of 1933, 1934 and 1935, Father Baker also spent many dedicated hours teaching Bible study classes to hundreds of African-Americans in the Lackawanna community; ultimately baptizing them into the Catholic faith when nobody else would.
Father Nelson Baker died on July 29, 1936 and at his request, was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery with his parents, next door to “City of Charity” he had created. In 1987 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican, conferred on Father Baker the title of Servant of God, which is the first step in the process of canonization, or becoming a saint. In order to achieve this status, it must be proven that the individual led a virtuous and remarkable life, which was not hard to figure out. Then in 1998, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints recommended that as a means of helping Father Baker’s canonization process, his remains be transferred from the cemetery to inside the OLV Basilica. On March 11, 1999, Father Baker then “came home” and his tomb is now located in the Grotto Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. This Grotto is carved out of black lava rock from Mount Vesuvius in Italy. Father Baker had wanted to find a construction material that was “untouched by humans” to commemorate the vision of the Blessed Mother to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France. While in the process of moving Father Baker’s body, a small vault was discovered inside Father Baker’s coffin, which houses three vials of Father Baker’s bodily fluids that were removed at death. To the surprise of everyone, one of these vials was found to hold some of Father Baker’s blood and it was still in liquid state 60 years after Father Baker died! This sample of fluid was immediately sent to Rome and is still in the process of being considered as a miracle to move Father Baker’s canonization process to the second step of being Blessed or beatified. While many individuals report to have experienced miracles via Father Baker, the Vatican has rejected two claims of miracles thus far and the process continues.
Frank really went above and beyond showing us around. Chris and I even asked more than once if Frank was actually the tour guide since he was incredibly knowledgeable about everything. In fact, Frank even got asked by other people in the Basilica if we were on a tour, since it definitely seemed like we were. Frank knew and shared specific details about the architects of the Basilica, the makers of the stained glass windows and the artists who sculpted the various marble statues, all of which I have forgotten…haha! While Frank told us several different unique points of interest, a few of the more interesting facts stick out in my mind I will share here.
For starters, it is quite noticeable how the seating of the pews is “theatre style” since it progressively declines as you walk towards the Main Alter at the front, something not usually seen in most churches. Another thing Frank pointed out is that like many old churches, the OLV Basilica seems like it is completely adorned in mosaics, wall to wall and floor to ceiling. However, this is simply an allusion at OLV, since everything is actually painted on the walls to look as if it is mosaic tiles. There is only one actual picture in the entire church that is a mosaic, located within the Grotto Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in the southern end of the Basilica’s transept. Frank then told us quite an interesting story about the Main Alter.
The Main Alter is a 16,000 pound statue of Our Lady of Victory, which is surrounded by four twisted columns of red Pyrenese marble. If you are familiar with geography, you know that the Pyrenese Mountain range is basically the natural border between Spain and France. Legend has it that after World War I came to an end, several American soldiers traveled to Spain before coming home to see what the country was like. Within this group of Americans were a few soldiers from Buffalo, NY, and during their travels happen to come upon a small country cottage adorned with a picture of Our Lady of Victory and also of Father Baker. These soldiers attempted to communicate with the owner of the cottage that they knew Father Baker personally. Due to not understand the language, a translator was sought one and eventually found. The soldiers explained to the cottage owner where they were from and how they knew Father Baker and also about Father Baker’s desire to build a shrine to Our Lady of Victory with marble imported from Europe. The cottage owner became quite excited and told the soldiers he in fact had some rare red marble on his property and that if Father Baker wanted it for his new shrine, he could have it for free. After the soldiers made it back to America, they indeed told Father Baker of this and eventually this marble was excavated and ended up being just enough for the Main Alter of the new shrine. However, what Franks also told us, is that there are actually 46 different types and colors of Italian marble used in creating the OLV Basilica.
Much of this marble was used in the creation of statues and alters that are found simply everywhere! There are fourteen life sized statues each carved out of a single block of marble, which detail the Stations of the Cross flanking each side of the sanctuary, the Main Alter itself, plus a total of seven additional alters that are found behind the Main Alter. Frank pointed out that one of these “mini alters” is of particular note; the Alter of St. Vincent de Paul. This particular alter was dedicated by some “Baker Boys” to honor St. Vincent de Paul, who was known for his work with the poor and downtrodden and served as a model for Father Baker himself. Another alter of note is the Alter of St. Patrick, which is used to commemorate the original church of St. Patrick that used to exist on the same location.
Frank also asked us if we had noticed all of the statuary outside, which we confirmed we had. Frank then asked us if we had noticed that Father Baker himself was one of those statues, which I had noticed but Chris had not (he was too cold and wanted to go back inside…poor baby). On the exterior of the church, there are two very large colonnades that extend outward from the main entrance, each adorned with a massive marble sculpture, each featuring a group of children being protected by a guardian angel. However, without Father Baker’s knowledge, when the marble statues finally arrived from being carved and were then put into place, Father Baker noticed that on the west colonnade, he in fact was the guardian angel carved out of marble. At first, Father Baker simply refused to allow his likeness to be venerated in such a way, but after some convincing and after realizing the costs and complexities of returning a massive block of marble overseas, Father Baker relented but remained embarrassed about this until his death.
As Frank described the statues on the outside of the Basilica, we proceeded to walk towards the front door. After explaining all that he could about the exterior, Frank informed us he needed to get going. Chris and I looked at each other and acknowledged it was getting late, since we had actually already spent the entire day exploring other sites in Buffalo. As we parted ways with Frank, it was not lost upon us how the legacy of Father Baker and all that he did for people in need, did not seem to be lost upon Frank as he helped us in ours.