Father Nelson Baker and the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory

Father Nelson Baker

Known as the Padre of the Poor, Nelson Henry Baker was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on February 16, 1842 from immigrant parents who had decided to settle there in what at the time was a prosperous and thriving city.  While he was still young, Nelson enlisted to fight in the American Civil War and fought in the battle of Gettysburg.

When his 30-day term of enlistment expired, Nelson returned home and at the age of 21 began a highly successful feed and grain enterprise with a friend.

Nelson began to give what he could to those who were less fortunate, ever mindful of the call to priesthood he continued to hear. He entered a seminary and was ordained a priest in 1876 at the age of 34. His first assignment was at Limestone Hill (what is Lackawanna, N.Y., today),  a parish consisting of a church, an orphanage, and a protectory for young boys who were “inclined to truancy and willfulness.” Initially an assistant, after a short assignment elsewhere, Father Baker returned and became superintendent at  Limestone Hill. He devoted his life to the children in need here through the orphanage, directory and a Working Boys home that he would eventually have built.

Shortly after the advent of the 20th century, “news of infant bones being dredged out of Erie Canal reached a horrified Father Baker. The practice of dumping unwanted babies in the waterway was becoming all too common. In response, Father Baker announced plans to construct an Infant Home to offer refuge, prenatal care, and adoptive services for infants and unwed mothers. The ambitious (and controversial) project began in 1907, was completed in March of the following year, and immediately filled to capacity. ”  

In 1921, at the age of 79, Father Nelson made his dream to build a tribute to his patroness, Our Lady of Victory, a reality.

Father Baker employed European artists and architects, and utilized the finest materials imported from Europe, Asia, and Africa. In May of 1926, four years after it’s initiation, the Basilica was completed and dedicated. Because of generous contributions, it was debt-free.

Father Nelson died in 1936 at the age of 94. “When his Will was probated, it was found that the man who had handled millions of dollars in his lifetime had died penniless.”

(From The Father Baker story.)

Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica

Last month when we visited two of our sons, Matthew and Mark Joseph, in Buffalo, NY, Matthew took us to the nearby town of Lackawanna to see the Our Lady of Victory Basilica. It reminded me of the great cathedrals we visited in Italy. 

Rear of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna, NY

We parked at the rear of the basilica and hurried to the front colonnade as it had started to rain. “At the time of construction, the dome was the nation’s largest behind only the U.S. Capitol Building.” (OLV Basilica pamphlet)

Left front colonnade of Our Lady of Victory basilica

You can see the raindrops in this photo. Because of that, I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the entrance, but you can see other photos at the OLV Basilica website.

Our Lady of Victory front entrance

I took this picture under a colonnade on the left of the front that mirrors the one you see here to the right of the front entrance.

Portico ceiling

Father Baker once said, “There are a thousand angels in the Basilica.” Estimates number them closer to 1500 to 2000.  “It was the humble priest’s plan to place an angel in every possible sight line.” These angels painted on the ceiling of the portico were the first we saw.

Gathering space ceiling

The ceiling of the entrance or gathering space is decorated with gold.

Chandelier in gathering space

Little angels hold the lights on a grand chandelier.

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Close to 2000 people visit the Basilica each month. The day we were there a wedding was about to take place, or had just finished. If you look closely you can see the bride on the left edge of the photo.

The pews are made from African mahogany.

Depicting the final hours of Jesus’ life, The Stations of the Cross are located along both sides.

Each scene of near-life-sized figures has been carved from a single piece of marble.

I always have mixed feelings when I tour a place of religious celebration. Photographs are allowed, and as you can see, I usually take pictures, but I always feel a little like I’m trespassing when I do.

Like many other great cathedrals, Our Lady of Victory is lined with small devotional chapels. This one, as you might recognize, is a grotto in tribute to Our Lady of Lourdes. In July 1998, the earthly remains of Father Baker were transferred from a nearby cemetery into the OLV Basilica. “Father Baker’s casket, carried by six men who were raised by the Padre of the Poor himself, was placed in a sarcophagus within the Grotto Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes.” The Grotto is hewn out of black lava rock from Mount Vesuvius in Italy.  (A Brief History of the Our Lady of Victory Shrine and Basilica)

Like the churches in Italy, every detail is a work of art, including the inlaid marble floors on which we trod. Although these were geometrical designs, the use of marble reminded me of the Siena Duomo’s inlaid scenes of the Bible from Seeing the Sensational Sights in Siena.

And like I did in all the churches, big or small, that we visited on our 2009 trip to Italy, I lit a candle here for Annie.

Here is a bust of Jesus with his crown of thorns.

This is a side view of the main altar, the focal point of the Basilica. You can see the swirled columns made of rare red marble from Spain (only two of the four are visible here.)  The style of these columns reminds me of the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome from Vatican City — Paradise for the Art Lover.

The structure depicts the Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Mother. “An angelic host carries Mary heavenward to meet the Holy Trinity.” (OLV pamphlet)

The statue of Mary is 9-foot tall, weighs 1600 pounds, and was personally blessed by Pope Pius XI.

This is a view from the front of the church looking back down the aisle. Because of the number of people touring and the light conditions, it was difficult to get a photograph that both had no people in it, and was also in focus,  The other two photos from this perspective are blurry, and although I wanted to photoshop the little guy out, I restrained myself from spending time on it.

When we left the church, we visited a museum about Father Baker’s life on site. We saw the room Father Baker had worked and lived in with all his original furnishings. He worked hard and long hours, lived simply, and I suspect truly deserved the title, Padre of the Poor. The dichotomy of the grandeur of the Basilica Father Baker built and the humbleness of the life he led speaks volumes of his devotion to the Blessed Mother and God’s work, and gives me cause to ponder.

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Author: CMSmith

I enjoy reading, writing, gardening, photography, genealogy and travel. I have opinions about many things, but am trying to age gracefully and not continually tick people off with them. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

13 thoughts on “Father Nelson Baker and the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory”

    1. Yes. It is. I have mixed feelings about the amount of money that was spent over the years in this manner. It’s interesting because Father Baker truly devoted his life to the poor, but his devotion to Mary compelled him to spend lavishly on this shrine. I really don’t know what I think about that.

      1. Ummm… it was Judas Iscariot who, when the Magdalene brought extremely expensive alabaster oil to pour on Our Lord’s FEET, who said….”this could have been spent on the poor…” and who was justly rebuked by Jesus! NOTHING is too good for a house of worship to the Almighty, Our Lord and Savior, and to the reverence due to Our Lady!

  1. I have lived in Buffalo for 33 years. It is my home. Now that I live away, I miss places like Father Baker’s Shrine. When I come for visits I try and make pilgrimages there to spend time with Fr Baker. I grew up with stories ( Or I should say threats so to speak, Ha Ha). Now that I am older I have a great respect for the Venerable Priest and I look for the day when he is canonized a saint. The shrine is truly breath taking and to amigine how is was conceived is truly amazing.

  2. I was baptized at OLV the day after I was born and then I stayed in the infant home until they gave me away in adoption to a horrible woman named Norma from Niagara Falls. I know adoption seems like the more correct thing to do over abortion, but when your narcissistic adoptive mother treats you so badly, controls and manipulates you, destroys all your relationships, and tries to takeover or destroy everything you try to do in your life, it is very difficult to believe that adoption is always the best answer. I am not alone in being an adult adoptee who wishes she had remained a ward of the state rather than be adopted by a monster.

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