By Joseph Xavier Martin
I was born in Our Lady of Victory Hospital, which sat just across the street from the magnificent Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica, in Lackawanna. I am not really clear on what theological nuances separate a basilica from an ordinary church, or an even grander cathedral. But this magnificent church matches up well with all of the many cathedrals that we have visited in our travels.
Although I have lived within walking distance of Our Lady of Victory, for most of my life, and attended various marital and funeral rites there, I have never really taken the time to appreciate this ornate, byzantine masterpiece for the architectural splendor that it represents. Though Father Nelson Baker was saintly in thought and practice, many generations of us were terrified by scolding parents of “being sent to Father Baker’s,” if we did not behave.
Within its quiet precincts, one can sit and ponder the mysteries of our Catholic faith, represented by the statuary and colorful religious imagery on display. The gilt-edged murals along the walls glitter in the flickering lights of the votive candles. The ornate carvings, of the stations of the cross, bring back parables and stories of the grand passion of Christ. They were taught to us, with ardent intensity, by the goodly nuns of the Sisters of Mercy, with whom many of us were ensconced for eight years of early schooling.
I can hear in my mind’s ear the rhythmic chanting of the responses from the faithful, repeated joyfully at every Mass. I am not really clear whether people preferred the celebration of the Mass in Latin to one celebrated in English because it evoked a deeper religious feeling or it was just what they were used to hearing as children.
The statuary, of Mary and the saints, are also old familiars. From each marble engraving erupts a wellspring of imagery remembered from religious classrooms and the celebration of Masses from long ago. The colored glass, in the stained-glass windows high along the walls, sparkles in the sunlight as if through an ethereal prism. It isn’t hard to be spiritual or ponder the hereafter in these magical precincts. The venue lends itself to the supernatural.
I know that busloads of supplicants come here daily, in search of a miniature Lourdes, hoping to bask in the curative magic of its founder, Father Baker. Saint or not, the man cast a spell of goodness that many, many thousands of the faithful benefited from in his nearby orphanage, hospital and schools. Father Baker was a visionary of biblical proportions, who enriched the well-being of many thousands of working people in our area.
Perhaps it is the surviving legend of the man, and all of the many good works that he accomplished, that gives the building its true magic. The gentility, goodness and decency of Father Baker, however, outshines the stone memorial. And I think that is what gives the basilica its ethereal majesty. From the movie “Field of Dreams” comes the saying “if you build it, they will come.” Father Baker did build it. And the faithful are still coming.
It is the rare mortal that can embody and enliven an entire philosophy of caring for one another and practicing the lessons that we were taught by Jesus, the Nazarene, in his Sermon on the Mount. But, Father Baker, this humble soldier of Christ, managed it with a dignity and force of purpose that even today inspires us in thought and action. May the celestial roads rise up to meet you, good Father Baker, and the heavenly winds be always at your back.
Joseph Xavier Martin grew up in the shadows of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna.
Story topics: Father Nelson Baker