Born in Buffalo in 1842, Nelson Henry Baker was a Union Army veteran of the Civil War and a successful partner in a Buffalo feed and grain business. But in his late twenties, unfulfilled with his work and uncertain of his future, Baker responded to a long-suppressed calling to become a priest and entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara Falls. In 1874, while still a seminarian, he visited Notre Dame des Victoires in Paris as part of a pilgrimage to European religious shrines. By his own telling, his experience in Paris transformed his life and inspired the vision that some fifty years later would become Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica, just the second minor basilica built in America. This month, exactly one hundred years after he laid the cornerstone of the Basilica, Father Baker’s shrine in Lackawanna begins a five-year celebration of its centennial.
More than any other church in the region, OLV presents a striking architectural wonder, a towering marble testament to one man’s vision and the skill of European designers and American craftsmanship. Four trumpeting angels adorn the great copper dome of the Basilica and twin towers welcome the world into the artistic grandeur of the interior of the Shrine. A colorful garden greets parishioners and visitors with crabapples and willows, and a parade of planters along the street delights passersby with an abundance of colorful flowers. Atop each of the curving colonnades that extend out from the main entrance is a marble sculpture of a group of children watched over by a guardian angel. On the east side, the children are led by a nun representing the Sisters of St. Joseph; on the west, Father Baker stands beneath the angel in the midst of his boys and girls. It is the only image of the venerable priest on the premises and he initially objected to its presence.
The evolution of Limestone Hill
What is today the area of Ridge Road and South Park Avenue was formerly called Limestone Hill and it was here, in 1856, that John Timon, Buffalo’s first bishop, bought sixty acres of land adjacent to Holy Cross Cemetery. In the 1860s and seventies, three Catholic institutions were established here that later became important in the life and ministry of Nelson Baker. They were St. Patrick’s parish church, St. Joseph’s Male Orphan Asylum, and St. John’s Protectory, a correctional institute for “boys inclined to willfulness.” Baker’s first assignment after his ordination was to assist Father Thomas Hines, pastor of St. Patrick’s, and to work with the boys at the institutions, preaching, counseling, and baptizing many orphans. Baker insisted that the bars be removed from the windows of the Protectory, asserting that it wasn’t a prison but a place for boys who badly needed direction. After a brief one-year assignment in Corning, Baker returned to Limestone Hill in 1882 as superintendent of the parish and institutions and immediately took steps to address their precarious financial condition. Drawing on his business background and talent, Baker began a direct mail campaign soliciting thousands of Catholic women throughout the nation to become members of the Association of Our Blessed Lady of Victory. For a twenty-five cent donation, Association members received The Appeal for Homeless and Destitute Children, a newsletter describing Baker’s work, and a remembrance of his donors in annual novenas and masses at St. Patrick’s. Over the ensuing years, Baker grew the existing services and expanded the scope of the ministry to include an industrial school where boys were taught trades, a home for unwed mothers and their infants, and a hospital.
In 1916, St. Patrick’s Parish church in Limestone Hill suffered a devastating fire that roared through the assembly area and completely destroyed the spire. Soon after, Baker ordered the sanctuary to be repaired, but not the spire. The reason became clear at a subsequent parish meeting when Baker announced his plan to build a beautiful shrine to Our Lady of Victory, one that would rival the great churches of Europe. Five years later, Baker celebrated the last mass at St. Patrick’s, which was then dismantled to make way for a magnificent new structure to celebrate the Holy Mother. Once again, Baker solicited funds by direct mail; each letter requested ten dollars to purchase a block of marble for the proposed basilica. He also sought the help of artists and craftsmen in Europe and the US to create the interior of the shrine. Baker began by hiring architect and chief designer Emile Uhlrich.
The building of the Basilica
Born in France in 1873, Uhlrich was a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris who emigrated to America and settled in Cleveland, where he designed several important churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A native Italian, Gonippo Raggi, professor at St. Michael’s Royal Art Academy in Rome, was commissioned with the interior decoration of the sanctuary. Raggi worked with Marion Rzeznik, a Buffalo artist and immigrant from Poland, who painted the inside of the Basilica. They created the five giant murals on the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the painting of the 120-foot-high, eighty-foot-wide dome depicting heaven and the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady surrounded by cherubs, apostles, archangels, and the Holy Trinity. When constructed, the size of the dome was second only to that of the US Capitol. Another artist whose work adorns the Basilica is Otto Andrle, a stained glass master, whose Buffalo firm produced all the intricately detailed stained glass windows that cast a soft glow over the African mahogany pews and every corner of the Shrine.
More remarkable artistry is evident in the Stations of the Cross, each of which was carved from a single piece of marble by Pepini, an Italian sculptor who created nearly life-sized figures with astonishing detail in facial expressions. In the interest of symmetry, Pepini carved two additional statues placed at the beginning and the end of the Stations. The first is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and the last is a classic Pieta with the crucified Jesus in the arms of the Blessed Mother. At OLV, there are statues everywhere, including more than two thousand angels. There are angels in the gilded light sconces and noble winged spirits in the vestibule and elsewhere in the sanctuary offering basins of holy water, now dry due to COVID precautions. Many of the statues throughout the Basilica were created by a firm in Pietrasanta, Tuscany, the world’s marble capital, also the source of marble for Michelangelo. The firm also created the exquisitely designed marble flooring, currently slated for deep cleaning with diamond-studded pads to remove the old layers of wax and grime. Within the great bronze doors of the Basilica are forty-six different varieties of marble. The many words that appear in capital letters above the sanctuary are from the Litany of Our Mother of Lourdes and include all of the titles of Mary in Latin.
Beneath the great dome stands the lavishly decorated main altar with its nine-foot marble statue of the Blessed Mother. Surrounding the statue are four swirling red columns made from native marble donated to the shrine by a pious farmer in Spain who knew of Father Baker’s work with the poor and homeless. Behind the main altar are seven more highly decorated altars devoted to St. Patrick, St. Vincent de Paul, Mary Immaculate, St. Aloysius, St. Anne, the Blessed Mother of Mary, St. Anthony, and St. Therese. Additional altars in the nave honor St. Joseph, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Our Lady of Lourdes, the Grotto Shrine where Father Baker now reposes. As a step toward Baker’s canonization, his remains were transported from Holy Cross Cemetery in 1999 to their permanent resting place in the Basilica. Deemed Venerable, Baker has reached the second of the four stages of canonization.
A city of charity
In the rear of the Basilica, up in the choir loft, stands the church’s fifty-four-rank pipe organ with metal and wood pipes ranging in size from six inches to eighteen feet. Built by the Delaware Pipe Organ Company, it was installed in 1981 to replace the original custom-built Wurlitzer organ.
“I hired the third organist in the history of the church,” says Monsignor David LiPuma, Pastor and Rector of OLV. “Peter Gonciarz is staff organist and choir director and one of the top musicians in Western New York. The original organist was a young girl who went on to play for fifty years. There’s music at every mass except for the Sunday evening mass at 4:30, a quiet mass.” As part of its musical tradition during the holiday season, OLV hosts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of Handel’s Messiah in the Basilica.
Although the Basilica is essentially sound, certain structural issues threaten the integrity of the building. “The centennial also marks a time of renovation and we’ve done an extensive feasibility study,” says LiPuma. “We’ve developed a ten-to-fifteen year runway outlining the projects we want to tackle so the building can continue for generations to come.”
“Our capital campaign will address some of the mounting challenges,” adds David Kersten, CEO, OLV Charities. “The drainage system from the roof needs to be addressed first. We applied for a competitive grant from the National Trust for Sacred Places and were awarded $250,000 and we’ve got to raise another $500,000. We’re hoping to begin some of that restoration work in the fall.” In addition to the roof and storm drainpipe system project, there will be restoration of crumbling plaster, work on the electrical and lighting systems and, perhaps the most visible endeavor, the cleaning of the marble floor.
What was founded in 1854 as a sanctuary for homeless and orphaned children is today a “City of Charity” comprising three major charitable institutions: OLV National Shrine and Basilica, OLV Human Services, and OLV Charities. “To this day, we still care for more than 4,500 children,” says LiPuma. “We’re everywhere in Western New York, but it’s all powered by OLV Human Services. We have about 900 employees spread out across the region. There’s a dental clinic, an outpatient clinic, and five schools. Baker Hall provides a residential program for kids that come here from about twenty-eight different school districts in the area. Kids from broken families, with parents in jail, on drugs, you name it. These kids are really struggling. In the legacy of Father Baker, we not only do academics, but we also do trades with them. A year ago, we bought Mazurek’s Bakery in the First Ward. It’s for-profit for us, but the kids are actually learning the trade. They work in the back bakery and up front at the counter. They’re not going to college, but they’ll learn a trade and that’s what Father Baker did back in the day. There’s also a school for kids at different levels on the spectrum of autism.”
OLV Charities collaborates with benefactors and friends to raise funds to support OLV Human Services, the Basilica, OLV Elementary School, and Venerable Nelson Baker’s Cause for Canonization. Funds are raised through grants and major gifts, planned giving, special events, direct mail and online philanthropy.
The Basilica is home to a parish of approximately 4,000 families and receives some 40,000 visitors each year. Says LiPuma, “For many, OLV is like a second parish. People come from Canada and Ohio and many distant places.”
“The Basilica is the catalyst for the Centennial,” explains Kersten. “We want to make sure we’re providing something relevant for people today. We want to do something that resonates with Father Baker’s legacy but that also speaks to people in a very contemporary way. We want to reset for the future and examine what Father Baker means to this community and region. The church is changing and we want to do our part in speaking to young people and speaking to society.”