A long time ago, before GPS systems, I got a call from Howard, the guy I would eventually marry.
He was hoping I could find a map.
“I’m lost,” he confessed. Then, in a tone of wonder, he said: “There’s this … there’s this HUGE church!”
I still laugh about that. But until recently, Our Lady of Victory Basilica was a mystery to me, too.
Being a Buffalonian, I knew about Father Nelson Baker, the priest now on the road to canonization. I loved how he found that gas well, guided by Our Lady of Victory, to whom he had a special devotion. It helped fuel his many charities, including that famous orphanage.
Otherwise Father Baker was, for me, pretty much just a punch line. As for the Lackawanna basilica that he built in the 1920s, I never thought about it.
Which amazes me now. Look at the Basilica.
I mean, just look at it.
It’s more audacious than anything Frank Lloyd Wright ever attempted. Its copper dome is 16 stories high – second only, at the time it was built, to the U.S. Capitol. Four 18-foot-tall copper angels sound the trumpet to the north, south, east and west.
The church looms absurdly over the corner of South Park Avenue and Ridge Road. Arriving for the 12:10 p.m. Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I stood and stared.
When I pushed open the heavy bronze doors, incense greeted me. So did a marble angel, as tall as I am, offering me holy water.
Angels are everywhere in the basilica, by order of Father Baker. Latin litanies circle the gigantic space. “Deos Sabaoth Hosanna,” I read. Hosanna to the Lord of hosts. Our Lady of Victory stands over the altar, the Christ Child in her arms. Goodness will triumph, the battle is won. Suddenly, you are sure.
The church filled up. Someone began the Angelus, the traditional noon prayers.
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
“Be it done to me according to Thy word.”
Bells began to ring.
The supernatural setting cried out for a Latin Solemn High Mass, such as Father Baker knew. But happily the Mass, while modern, struck ancient notes. The Kyrie was in Greek, the Sanctus in Latin. There were prayers for Father Baker’s canonization.
Surprisingly, I knew the celebrant, Friar Jud Weiksnar. In his robe and sandals, he is a regular at Larkinville events. Friar Jud is starting a six-month stint at the basilica. After Mass, he said it had always awed him.
He pointed out one of OLV’s life-sized stations of the cross, “Jesus is Condemned To Death.”
“When I was little, Channel 4 would broadcast the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. They would zoom in on Pontius Pilate’s face,” he said. “Look at his expression. It always gave me chills.”
Father Baker, too, had a special station: Jesus meeting Mary on His way to be crucified. The stone is worn down where, the story goes, the legendary priest would rest his hand.
His tomb is nearby, with a kneeler should you wish to ask him for anything. (I took advantage.) In the basement museum, they have re-created his room. I gawked at the huge Bible by his bed. How did he heft that onto the pillow?
How did he do anything he did? It’s so poignant to see the photos of boys and girls, some of whom were simply put on trains with tags reading “Father Baker’s.” You can glimpse Father Baker on the basilica’s roof, leading a group of children. A humble man, he balked at the statue. But look what he achieved.
And what he continues to achieve. If he is canonized, OLV Basilica won’t be just one of the 100 things every Western New Yorker should do at least once. It will be a mob scene.
Go in peace, while you can.