Nelson H. Baker raised $3.7 million in the early 1920s to build Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the glistening white-marble shrine that sits atop a hill on Ridge Road in Lackawanna.
Baker's feat is nothing short of miraculous when you consider the "padre of the poor" collected donations through the mail for a sum that today would be valued at almost $50 million. To help raise the money, Baker also sold $10 bricks of marble that would cost $135 today.
It took nearly five years – from 1921 to 1926 – to construct the Baroque-style shrine that pays homage to Baker's spiritual inspiration – the Blessed Mother Mary. It replaced St. Patrick's Church which was dismantled after suffering heavy fire damage in 1916.
As parish superintendent and Civil War veteran, Baker was 79 when construction began. His aim was to create a basilica that was in line with the grand churches of Europe. Materials were shipped from around the United States and Europe to build the 67,500 square foot structure.
[Related: Photo gallery of Our Lady of Victory]
The exterior marble was cut by the Georgia Marble Co. in Tate, Ga. The structural framework was from Lackawanna's Bethlehem Steel Plant. According to the basilica's website, 46 types of marble comprise the floor, walls, pillars, statues and altars. The rare red marble altar pillars were brought from Spain.
The artists who painted the murals, sculpted the statues and painstakingly produced the basilica's 134 stained-glass windows were also members of an international team:
-- Architect Emile Ulrich, a graduate of the Academy of Paris, was in Cleveland when the call came from Baker.
-- Italian born Gonippo Raggi masterminded the artwork. His oil paintings can be seen throughout the shrine. When he died at age 84 in 1959, Raggi was the subject of a New York Times obituary that credited his work in more than 100 churches on three continents.
-- Buffalonian Marion Rzeznik of Poland assisted Raggi. Rzeznik studied sculpture in Krakow, Vienna and New York City.
-- Otto Andrle, a Buffalo-native, crafted the stained-glass windows.
To build the basilica today would be virtually impossible, said Monsignor Paul Burkard in an online tour of the site. Basilica pastor and vice postulator for Baker, Burkard noted the materials and classically trained craftsmen may not be so available today.
Some of the over-the-top features that transform the basilica into an art museum are:
- The copper dome, 165 feet high and 80 feet across. Inside the dome are oil paintings of the assumption and coronation of the Blessed Mother. Surrounding the dome's exterior, four winged angels of solid copper stand 18 feet tall.
- The statue of Our Lady of Victory in the niche at the main entrance watches over Baker and a flock of children. She weighs a formidable 8 tons.
- Legions of angels that number from 1,500 to 2,500 appear throughout the basilica, planned by Baker to be in every sight line.
- The 56-figure Stations of the Cross crafted from one block of marble took 14 years to complete.
- When Baker died in 1936, his body of work included Our Lady of Victory Basilica, a hospital, high school, elementary school, an infant home, a home for unwed mothers and a boys' orphanage.
Visitors will find Baker's remains in a tomb within the Grotto Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. The stunning grotto is made of lava rock from Mount Vesuvius in Italy. It was Baker who chose lava rock as a fitting tribute to Our Lady of Lourdes because it was untouched by human hands.
Baker's casket was transferred to the basilica on March 11, 1999, after it was exhumed from nearby Holy Cross Cemetery. In 2011, Pope Benedict recognized Baker's virtues in the second step of the priest's journey to canonization.
Our Lady of Victory Basilica, 767 Ridge Road, is open daily from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. It attracts between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors each year, said John Pitts, director of public relations and special events. There is no charge for admission.
Open guided tours are given at 1 and 2 p.m. Sundays except Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day.
A museum occupies most of the lower level of the basilica and offers a look at Baker's life and charitable works.
Duncan G. Stroik, a practicing architect, is an author and professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. In a video posted on the basilica website, Stroik called the structure "a light on a hill" and compared it to a beacon.
"It's a great sermon that lives on after [Baker's] death and continues to speak to people today," Stroik said.
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