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'Father Baker's Boys' were the real miracle

"Questions being raised now revolve around whether his work will be enough to qualify him for sainthood in the Catholic Church . . . In other words: Was Father Baker a miracle worker, or simply a wonderful man ahead of his time?" - from a Buffalo News article by Charity Vogel

In the Catholic Church, becoming a saint is a little more complicated than making it, for instance, into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

With the Hall of Fame, statistics matter less than reputation. If enough experts believe you were great, you get your plaque. With sainthood, church leaders base admission strictly on batting average.

That means documented miracles, in the big Hollywood way. Let's say you pray all night to a particular saint. Your ailing grandmother finds out she is cured of deadly cancer. That's what does it. Three or four of those, and your candidate gets in.

I don't know if Father Nelson Baker will ever make it on that score. But I know I think of him whenever I hear about the "endless cycle" of inner-city poverty. I think of the old priest when I see angry kids walking the street, kids so mad they'll slam a shoulder into you if you don't move, kids who think no one gives a damn about them.

These are the kids people say don't have a chance. I want to stop them and tell them that, in a way, we're family.

My father could have been one of those kids. He was born in Buffalo in 1918. His own father, to put it kindly, was not always a real nice guy. My dad was one of at least 14 siblings. He and one of his kid brothers, years later, would drink coffee in the kitchen and count off their brothers and sisters on their fingers.

My father had one vague memory of watching his mother as she did dishes at the sink. She died in 1922, when he was a little boy. He knew they buried her in a graveyard in Olean. We stopped there once as we were driving through. My father walked the cemetery, looking for her stone. I see him as I write this - hands in pockets, cigarette in mouth, kicking at the ground.

The stone wasn't there. Years later, as an adult, I made the drive myself. I went to the cemetery office and learned she has an unmarked grave.

Father Nelson Baker: Drawing on the wall of Our Lady of Victory rectory, in Lackawanna. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

As a young man, Father Baker served in the Civil War. He saw the worst of what human beings could do. He came home, became a successful businessman, then quit to be a priest. His Lackawanna orphanage would house thousands upon thousands of children over many decades. The place became famous throughout the Northeast. The story went that desperate parents would put their toddlers onto trains, with notes on strings around their necks that read, "Please send to Father Baker."

With my grandmother dead, my grandfather left all his sons from that marriage in the Lackawanna orphanage. My father, at 4, was the second to youngest. His little brother was 2. They were torn from their home, essentially abandoned. Those kinds of events are supposed to leave a kid wounded and traumatized.

Somehow, that didn't happen at Father Baker's. In a quiet way, he was a genius. I can't tell you how he worked his wonders, but I can tell you this:

My father and his brothers were city kids, cut off from their family. They grew up as part of the army of "Father Baker's boys." My dad always spoke of the place with realistic affection. Life was Spartan, but he realized the alternatives. He'd occasionally take us on visits to the old orphanage, these old brick buildings that had once been his home. If that history made him sad, my dad didn't show it.

He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression before serving in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he turned into the kind of guy who got up and went to work each day. He didn't beat us. He didn't run around. He never hit my mother.

Despite the pain of his own childhood, he showed a deep reverence for family. He read, constantly. He understood the music of machines. Yes, he was profane. His manners could be, let's say, erratic. But he came out of the orphanage with a humility easy to understand, and a work ethic I still feel I never quite can meet.

In the late 1980s, just before my father died, we accompanied him to a reunion of "Father Baker's boys." Many of them had turned out much the same: decent guys with solid jobs, raising solid families. Father Baker took boys who'd been cast off, often abused, and created the kind of men you'd want as your friends and neighbors.

He died in 1936, but his legacy expands with every generation.

Now I walk down the street and I see kids in that same boat, all these kids who need only what the old priest somehow provided, the kind of love and safety stolen from them in their cribs.

A miracle worker? I'd say he qualifies.

SEAN KIRST is a contributing columnist for the Buffalo News. Leave a comment below or email him at You can read more of his work in this archive.

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