GATES — He reportedly cured the blind, healed the sick and calmed raging waters.
He was known for his intense prayer life, generosity to the poor and apparent ability to raise the dead to life again.
Although the reader might think these are stories about Jesus, they’re actually stories about one his most devoted followers — Father Nelson H. Baker, a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo who lived from 1841 to 1936.
Father Baker served at St. Mary’s Parish in Corning from 1881-82 when that community was still part of the Buffalo Diocese. On the evening of Sept. 12, John Koerner — who belongs to Our Lady of Victory Parish in Lackawana, where Father Baker also served — came to St. Jude Parish to talk to more than 60 people about the famous priest.
Koerner is the author of The Mysteries of Father Baker, published this year by Western New York Wares Inc. More information on the book may be found at www.wnybooks.com. Koerner’s presentation was sponsored by the group Call to Holiness.
A historian and educator, Koerner, 28, graduated St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, in 1999 and earned a master’s degree in American history from the State University of New York College at Brockport. His book notes that the Vatican is considering Father Baker for canonization to sainthood, not only for his reputed miracles, but also for his extensive charitable work and founding of such institutions as a hospital and an infants’ home.
In a follow-up interview, Koerner said that Buffalo Catholics are well aware of the famous Father Baker and that he wanted more people to know about this mysterious priest whose person combined deep humility and apparent supernatural powers.
“I believe that the story of Father Baker, and the idea that perhaps miracles literally do happen, can inspire people and bring a sense of hope to so many individuals who have lost a sense of security and faith in our modern world,” Koerner said.
Koerner added that one of his best sources for stories about Father Baker was Father Robert F. McNamara, the longtime Diocese of Rochester archivist and historian. Father McNamara’s aunt, Mary Dwyer McNamara, was among the St. Mary, Corning, parishioners who were healed through the intercession of Father Baker. The priest prayed over her and blessed her with water from Lourdes, France, when she had typhoid fever, Koerner noted. Lourdes is where Mary reportedly appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 and is the site of a spring, the water of which has been credited with curing people.
Corning was also the site of Father Baker’s first recorded miracles, Koerner said, noting that the priest was said to have revived a woman who had fallen unconscious in the snow near St. Mary’s. He also reportedly cured a Frank Baker in Corning who was suffering from diphtheria.
Father Baker himself suffered a rare and often fatal skin disease called erysipelas while he was studying to be a priest, and Koerner theorized that Father Baker’s own suffering enabled him to be open to God’s healing power on behalf of others.
“Maybe miracles are something about spiritual empathy,” he said.
Koerner noted that Father Baker was also reputed to have power over the weather. For example, after he prayed during a raging storm on the Niagara River, two boats carrying the priest and 200 Buffalo-area women religious were saved from sinking when the storm abruptly ended.
Koerner added that miracles connected to Father Baker continue to happen. For example, Koerner said, when vials of the priest’s blood, preserved after his death, were exhumed 63 years later, the blood showed no signs of degeneration and appeared as it would have if it had still been in his body. Koerner also noted that relatives of a Buffalo-area man who recently emerged from a 10-year coma attributed his revival to their placing on him a piece of Father Baker’s cloak every day.
Koerner seemed convinced that Father Baker was, indeed, a miracle-worker whose own life echoed that of Jesus, in both its earthly good deeds and expressions of supernatural power. Father Baker, who was also multilingual, pastoral and gifted in financial administration, was nothing less than a genius, Koerner said.
“In fact, the only thing I haven’t come up with is a story of him walking on the water,” Koerner added with a smile.