As the Vatican examines up to 2,000 cases for potential saints from around the world, the cause for Lackawanna's Father Nelson H. Baker continues to gain traction.
So much so that Diocese of Buffalo officials were caught a bit off guard by the Vatican's announcement Jan. 14 that Father Baker had completed the first stage in a three-step canonization process and had been elevated to "Venerable" status.
The overseers of the local effort to get Father Baker recognized as a Catholic saint had anticipated news from the Vatican around Easter.
No matter the timing, they were thrilled with his upgrade from "Servant of God," a designation he received in 1987.
"It's a boost for the faith of the people of Western New York," said Bishop Edward U. Kmiec. "Many times, saints are from far away or from long ago. But Father Baker was around not so long ago, and he was right here in our midst."
Kmiec and Monsignor Paul J. E. Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna and vice-postulator of the cause for Father Baker, met with the media Tuesday for the first time since the Vatican's midwinter surprise.
They announced two events in March at the basilica to mark Father Baker's status as a Venerable, including a solemn vespers service March 18 and a Mass of Thanksgiving March 19, the 135th anniversary of his ordination.
Father Baker -- known across Western New York for his work with orphans and the poor and for building the network of human service agencies known presently as Baker Victory Services -- now joins a select group of fewer than a dozen Americans who are an approved miracle away from being beatified as blessed. There are 10 American saints and five American blesseds.
For many Western New Yorkers, Father Baker already is a saint. "He did what we all should do really," said Mary Ortiz of Lackawanna. "And he didn't expect any praise or gifts in return or anything like that."
Ortiz and her husband, Dave, parishioners of Our Lady of Victory, said they hear countless stories about Father Baker's good deeds and the "favors" people received by asking him to pray to God on their behalf.
"My mother knew Father Baker. She used to stand in the bread lines," said Mary Ortiz. "She always talked about him as if he were her priest, and she didn't even belong to this parish. But he was everybody's priest, whether you belonged here or not."
The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints is currently reviewing a purported medical miracle that at the diocesan level was attributed to the intercession of Father Baker. The miracle was submitted to the Vatican about 4 1/2 years ago and is detailed in an 800-page book that includes testimony from doctors. Diocesan officials declined to discuss the nature of the cure, which must defy any medical or scientific explanation to be deemed a Vatican-certified miracle.
How long the Vatican's review will take is anyone's guess, as is whether the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will ultimately agree that a miraculous cure occurred due to Father Baker's intercession.
The 34-member congregation of cardinals, archbishops and bishops has a staff of 23 to assist in delving into hundreds of thousands of pages of documents chronicling the lives and virtues of saint candidates.
"It's quite a lengthy process in any case," said Burkard, who urged people to keep praying for Father Baker. "We're hoping the case we have will proceed as quickly as possible."
He said some of the roughly 2,000 people being examined for sainthood have cases that are "hundreds of years old."
Father Baker, who died in 1936 at 94, is vying to become the first U.S.-born priest to be declared a saint -- a distinction also being sought by Father Michael J. McGivney, a Connecticut priest who founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882.
McGivney, whose cause is promoted by the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of Hartford, was elevated to Venerable in 2008. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is examining a reported miracle attributed to his intercession.
A second confirmed miracle is required for sainthood.