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Meet the “snowshoe priest” who evangelized Upper Michigan

IRENEJ FRIDERIK BARAGA
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Ven. Frederic Baraga traveled countless miles in his snowshoes to preach the Gospel message.

Born in 1797 in Slovenia, Irenaeus Frederic Baraga discovered early on that he had a gift for languages. By the age of 21 Baraga mastered Slovenian, German, French, Greek and Latin. This ability to master foreign tongues would serve him well later on in life.

In 1816 he enrolled at the University of Vienna and graduated five years later with a law degree. During his time at the university he became convinced of his vocation to the priesthood and after graduating entered the seminary.

Baraga was ordained to the priesthood at age 26 and was a zealous priest on fire for souls. After a few years of parish work Baraga was interested in the missionary activity of the New World. He responded to an appeal by Bishop Fenwick of Cincinnati and first traveled there.

While in Cincinnati he studied the language of the Ottawa tribe and soon after traveled to Cross Village, Michigan to minister to the local inhabitants. Baraga published a catechism book in the Ottawa language and then continued on the missionary road to the Ojibway (Chippewa) tribe at La Pointe, Wisconsin.

While there a harsh and cold winter set in and the natives moved deeper inland to keep warm. This meant Baraga had to fashion himself a pair of snowshoes in order to reach them. He used these shoes for the rest of his life and eventually earned the nickname “snowshoe priest,” for the hundreds of miles that he traveled on foot.

Baraga continued to found new missions in the area, spending an extended amount of time at L’Anse, Michigan. He ministered both to the Chippewa people as well as the newly arrived European settlers. Using his linguistic skills he published a dictionary for the Chippewa language.

Among the many difficulties Baraga encountered was the uprooting of the native people by settlers. With his experience as a lawyer Baraga defended the rights of the native people and kept them from being moved.

After many years of priestly service Baraga was elevated to the rank of bishop and became the first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. He continued to serve the native people, but also the increasing amount of immigrants. Baraga was now the “snowshoe bishop” and used his snowshoes well into his 60s.

He was a saintly priest and bishop and kept a journal of all his many adventures. Baraga wrote in one of his entries, “Sunday – Extraordinary day of work! From 4 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night I had worked uninterruptedly: remarkably many confessions, five sermons, twenty-three baptisms and three confirmations.”

While he had an arduous life, it was one that bore much fruit. He wrote, “Oh! What a consolation, what ineffable bliss, to gain immortal souls for Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Baraga died on January 19, 1868 and was buried in the cathedral at Marquette, Michigan.

His many missionary endeavors and zeal were an inspiration to many. A cause for canonization was opened after his death, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI. A miracle is currently under investigation that may pave the way to his beatification.

Check out our series on the Saints of the United States.

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