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'Baker Boys' help celebrate legacy of revered priest Dwindling number who were nurtured at orphanage cherish their memories

If Father Baker were a saint, Sunday likely would have been his feast day.

For now, however, the 29th of July is simply Father Nelson Baker Day, celebrated each year in Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.

At a noon Mass, hundreds packed the pews to honor the memory of Baker, who died on that date in 1936.

Among them were living proof of his legacy -- a handful of the original "Father Baker Boys" who grew up in his orphanage. Fewer than 20 of them are still alive, and the ones who remain, either approaching or already in their 80s, form a unique brotherhood.

Joe Kelley, a Baker Boy, laid a red wreath on Father Baker's tomb in the basilica after Mass.

"I was 7 1/2 when he died," said Kelley. "He used to sit up on the porch of the [St. John's] Protectory and wave to us when we went by -- and he sometimes threw us candy."

After three decades in the armed forces, John Phillips, the self-proclaimed "oldest Father Baker Boy," returned to work with Father Baker Institutions. At the Mass, he placed a memorial wreath on the tomb with Kelley. His earliest memories, he said, are of the Baker home.

"I was brought here when I was 6 days old," he said. "I used to bring Father Baker his meals, bring his tray up [to his room]." Eyes twinkling, he recalled Baker giving him desserts, a fact that he had to hide from the orphanage nuns.

Gerald Schenk, also a Baker Boy, said, "I have no compunction about saying it was great" about his time at the orphanage.

After the Mass, Lackawanna Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr., who annually addresses the assembly, said to the hundreds attending, "In all the years I've been mayor, this is the most humbling thing that I do."

The congregation then joined in a prayer for Father Baker's canonization.

At the reception after the Mass, churchgoers enjoyed cake that read "God Bless Father Baker" in blue icing. Artists' depictions of scenes from the orphanage -- like Father Baker roasting marshmallows with the boys and joining them on the playground -- hung on the walls.

Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, who succeeded the late Father Baker-championing Monsignor Robert C. Wurtz as pastor, said, "It's a wonderful day for us here at Our Lady of Victory because we honor the death day of Father Baker. . . . For Catholic saints, it's the death day that's more important than the birthday. The day of death is the birthday into heaven."

He added, "We celebrate his life and remember the things he did. We try to remind ourselves that we're the ones carrying on his legacy."

The last time he visited Rome, Burkard said, he heard positive comments about Father Baker's canonization process.

"There's always progress," he said. "Rome has information that they're working with now, so that's helpful. Sometimes we're doing a lot of work here, and their response is a little slower than we would like, but it's still a very live case. They're still working on it."

If Baker becomes a saint, July 29 will likely be his feast day, providing that it does not conflict with another saint's death and passes muster in the Vatican.

Schenk, 79, said Baker's proposed canonization could not come soon enough.

"They should have started sooner, and maybe we'd be farther ahead," he said, "but the Vatican doesn't work that way."

e-mail: kreedy@buffnews.com

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