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The priest and former businessman who fed a million a year during the Depression

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Venerable Nelson Baker was known as the "Padre of the Poor" and hailed for his "City of Charity."

Born in Buffalo, New York, Nelson Baker lived a happy childhood and upon graduation from high school joined his family in running a grocery and general store in Buffalo’s downtown. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the bright young man.

Then in 1863, New York sought to enlist 20,000 new recruits for the Civil War and Baker became one of them. He served in the 74th New York regiment for a short time and when the violence was over, returned home to Buffalo.

Successful businessman

A friend of Baker’s approached him about opening up a feed and grain business and Baker agreed. Soon after, they opened up Meyer and Baker and ran a successful business for several years.

During this new venture Baker was very generous and became acquainted with a Catholic orphanage called Limestone Hill, St. Joseph’s Orphanage. He felt a call to the priesthood, but often dismissed it. In Baker’s eyes, he was getting older and had not received the education needed to become a priest. Nevertheless, the call persisted.

Eventually Baker couldn’t deny the calling any longer and was accepted as a seminarian at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Buffalo. His business partner was devastated and didn’t know how he could keep the business afloat without him. Baker had a solution and had his younger brother fill his role in the company.

Baker excelled in seminary, even though he was 10 years older than his classmates. In 1874 Baker went on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Victories in Paris and the experience stayed with him for the rest of his life.

“Padre of the Poor”

On the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1876, Nelson Baker was ordained to the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo. Father Baker was appointed to Limestone Hill, St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which at the time was severely in debt.

To help pay off what was owed, Father Baker emptied out his personal accounts and started a fundraising initiative called the Association of Our Lady of Victory. He wrote hundreds of letters across the country and in a short time had everything paid off.

In the early 1900s Baker heard of a nearby canal that contained the remains of numerous infants and small children who were drowned by their own mothers, not wanting them to be brought up in poverty. This spurred Father Baker to create his own Our Lady of Victory Infant Home that provided a safe place for unwed mothers and their children.

According to the website for his canonization, “If a mother did not want to keep her infant, there was a crib and a blanket always set next to the unlocked door of the home, so she could deposit her child there during the night.”

After the home was built, one of Father Baker’s favorite activities was to end his nightly rounds, “at the Infant Home where he was often found tucking in little ones, blessing them all on his way out the door.”

Father Baker didn’t stop there and eventually built a basilica shrine in honor of Our Lady of Victory. The church, along with the orphanage, a trade school, Working Boys Home, Infant Home and a maternity hospital, became known as a “City of Charity.” The newspapers called Father Baker the “Padre of the Poor” and praised him for his many charitable deeds. According to the National Catholic Register, “Official estimates show that Father Baker was responsible each year for a million meals, clothing for a half million, and medical care for 250,000 others during the Depression.”

Father Baker died at 94 years old in 1936 and his legacy continues to this day. On January 14, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI declared him “venerable” and Baker’s cause for canonization continues. According to Monsignor Paul Burkard in an interview last year with News 4, a miracle attributed to his intercession has already been reported, and has been presented to Rome. It is hoped that the certification of the miracle will happen soon.

Don’t forget to check out all of the Saints of the United States that we have covered so far! Many more causes of canonization will be covered this year!

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