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Father Baker's 'champion' dies Msgr. Wurtz pushed drive for sainthood

If anyone understood the life of Father Nelson Baker, Buffalo's candidate for sainthood, it was Monsignor Robert C. Wurtz, the man most responsible for pushing Baker's canonization effort.

Others succeeded Father Baker, either in running Our Lady of Victory Basilica or overseeing the plethora of human services programs that he founded.

But only Monsignor Wurtz performed all of those duties at the same time, just as Baker had done, an almost magical balancing act that many had come to take for granted.
Monsignor Wurtz died of cardiac arrest Tuesday in Mercy Hospital. He was 74, and it became clearer how much he had accomplished.

In one sense, the indefatigable pastor and president of Baker Victory Services even had Father Baker topped: Baker hadn't spent countless hours documenting himself to be canonized.

That work was left to Monsignor Wurtz, who pursued the laborious and sometimes frustrating task with quiet passion.

"He was deeply committed to it because he was convinced that Father Baker is a saint," said Richard Heist, director of development for OLV Homes of Charity. "He felt it was simply a matter of getting through the protocol, the procedures, for that to be recognized within the church."

Beloved in Lackawanna, Monsignor Wurtz died at about 9:45 a.m., and by noon more than 250 people filed into the pews of the basilica to honor his memory.

Many of them were employees of OLV charities, the $50 million nonprofit organization that Monsignor Wurtz led along with his duties as a parish pastor.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec offered words of consolation and led the group in prayers.

"He humbly followed in the steps of Father Nelson Baker as he worked to provide better lives for the needy," Kmiec said. "He was a true icon and led Our Lady of Victory parish with grace, provided excellent leadership to a social services network that serves thousands every day and played an extremely important role in the ongoing effort to have Father Baker canonized. His impact is immeasurable and will be long-lasting."

Monsignor Wurtz will lie in state from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday and 2 to 7 p.m. Friday in the basilica, Ridge Road and South Park Avenue, Lackawanna. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday, with Kmiec as celebrant and Bishop Robert J. Cunningham of the Diocese of Ogdensburg as homilist.

A Buffalo native, Monsignor Wurtz was a graduate of Canisius High School, Canisius College and Christ the King Seminary at St. Bonaventure University.

He was well aware of the work of Father Baker from a young age and as a boy received from his father, Charles, a cherished statue of Our Lady of Victory, the grand basilica that Baker had built in the early 1920s. As a teenager, Monsignor Wurtz took the name "Nelson" as his confirmation name.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1958 and served as a procurator at St. John Vianney Seminary early in his vocation. His 33-year tenure at Our Lady of Victory began in 1974, when he was appointed assistant to the general manager of Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity. A year later, he was named executive director of Baker Hall.

His responsibilities continued to grow. In 1994, he became pastor of the basilica parish of 2,300 families. In 1996, he oversaw the merger of Baker Hall and the Infant Home into Baker Victory Services, then was named president of the board of directors of the new institution, which annually provides 3,500 children and families education, residences, outpatient health care, international and domestic adoptions and foster care.

"He's the third successor to Father Baker, but the only one who held all of the responsibilities that Father Baker did," said Beth Donovan, spokeswoman for Our Lady of Victory.

Tall and silver-haired, Monsignor Wurtz was a demanding and precise leader who could be impatient at times and warm and accommodating at others.

He had a "John Wayne presence, but the heart of a teddy bear," said Donovan. "I feel like we are a large family who just lost their dad today."

In a 2005 interview with The Buffalo News, the monsignor described himself as feeling "permeated" by Baker's spirit.

Early each morning, he ended an hour of prayer inside the basilica by stopping at Baker's tomb.

"He used to say, 'They're awful big shoes to fill,' " said Sister Ellen O'Keefe, principal of Our Lady of Victory School and a longtime friend of Monsignor Wurtz. "I'll tell you he did a good job doing it."

It was Monsignor Wurtz, an accomplished equestrian, who taught O'Keefe in 1974 how to ride horses. The two last went horseback riding together about three weeks ago, she said.

In recent years, Monsignor Wurtz battled colon cancer and arthritic knees but continued to press forward with his numerous tasks. He was a steady presence at the parish school of more than 400 pupils, often attending basketball games, home-school meetings and other functions, O'Keefe said.

He quietly went about the weekly business of responding to e-mails, phone calls and letters from people claiming to have a miracle that would bolster Baker's chances for canonization.

He also was in regular contact with the Vatican regarding Baker's status, said Donovan.

Monsignor Wurtz's death will not hinder Baker's cause, Kmiec said, adding that he fully intends to continue the process.

But the bishop also acknowledged he wasn't sure who the monsignor's successor would be or if one person could handle the many tasks Monsignor Wurtz juggled.

If Monsignor Wurtz found it challenging to follow in Baker's footsteps, he didn't make it any easier for the next person in line.

"These will be hard shoes to fill," Kmiec said. "It's very, very important work."


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