Parish links notable priests - Catholic Courier

Parish links notable priests

More than 70 years ago Robert F. McNamara, then in his early 20s, had the occasion to meet and chat with the renowned Msgr. Nelson Baker. As it would turn out, that get-together united two of the most distinguished priests ever connected with St. Mary’s Parish in Corning.

Robert F. McNamara, a native of St. Mary’s, went on to become Father McNamara, the longtime diocesan seminary professor, historian and archivist. The priest, who turned 95 in November 2005, also has authored numerous books, with a special flair for parish and diocesan history.

As for Msgr. Baker — more commonly known as Father Baker — his cause for sainthood is growing due to a gigantic body of ministry, in which he oversaw numerous institutions for the underprivileged. Father Baker is also widely regarded as a miracle worker, a trait that apparently already existed at St. Mary’s in Corning during an early priestly assignment there.

He served St. Mary’s for approximately 13 months in 1881 and 1882, when the Southern Tier region was still a part of the Diocese of Buffalo (it became a part of the Diocese of Rochester in the 1890s.) Father Baker practiced his priesthood with zeal, endearing himself to a parish community that included several of Father McNamara’s relatives.

“There was a firm friendship between himself and the family,” Father McNamara said during a recent interview in his apartment at McAuley Residence, located in the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse in Rochester.

One episode, involving Father Baker and a McNamara family member, illustrates the priest’s reputation as a miracle man. In A Century of Grace — Father McNamara’s 1948 profile of St. Mary’s that was the first of his parish history books — he noted that his aunt, Katherine Dwyer McNamara, was allegedly cured of typhoid fever after Father Baker prayed over her and applied Lourdes water. The water comes from a sacred spring in Lourdes, France, and is thought to have miraculous healing powers.

“It was firmly believed that his intervention was responsible for the cure,” Father McNamara wrote.

Katherine was approximately 18 or 19 years old at the time. In 1885 she married Dr. Thomas A. McNamara, a local physician. They had five children together before she died in 1897 from appendicitis. In 1906, Dr. McNamara married Katherine’s sister, Helen Dwyer. Father McNamara was born in 1910 as the only child of that couple — making Katherine his aunt, even though she died 13 years before he was born.

Katherine Dwyer McNamara was seemingly not the only person to benefit from Father Baker’s healing abilities. Father McNamara noted in A Century of Grace that one local man was cured of diphtheria and another of a painful kidney ailment; both healings were attributed to Father Baker’s intercession.

The Mysteries of Father Baker, published last year by Western New York Wares Inc., states that several other miraculous cures, healings and divine works are, even to this day, being attributed to Father Baker. The book’s author, John Koerner, belongs to Our Lady of Victory Parish in Lackawanna outside of Buffalo, where Father Baker served for many years. In a story that appeared in the Sept. 24, 2005, Monroe/Livingston weekly edition of the Catholic Courier, Koerner credits Father McNamara as the main source for an entire chapter titled “The Corning Miracles.” Along with the three healings already mentioned, Koerner quotes Father McNamara about an alleged healing by Father Baker of a woman who had been found unconscious — or possibly even dead — in the snow, as well as Father Baker’s anointing of an area woman who was near death after having giving birth to twins who both died. The woman went on to bear seven children and lived to age 84.

After serving in Corning, Father Baker was transferred to Lackawanna, where his legend was solidified over the next half-century. With his deep empathy for those in need, as well as a sharp business mind, Father Baker was the driving force behind a thriving hospital; a home for orphaned boys; and havens for unwed mothers and unwanted babies.

In the mid-1920s Father Baker oversaw construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory. A few years later, Father Baker — by this time in his early 90s — received a visit from the future Father McNamara.

“We had a very nice chat,” Father McNamara said. “I’d always wanted to see him; we talked so much about him in the family.”

Father Baker died in 1936 at the age of 95. Father McNamara was ordained that same year, and went on to teach at St. Bernard’s Seminary from 1938 until his retirement in 1981. He has continued to be actively involved in history-related endeavors; just a year ago he released Good Old Doctor Mac, a biography of his father.

Recent years have seen a strong push for Father Baker’s canonization. Father McNamara explained that a cause for sainthood is normally opened at least 50 years after the person in question has died. Indeed, in 1987 — 51 years after Father Baker’s death — the cause was officially launched, and Father McNamara believes it will eventually succeed.

“I think it’s pretty well under way,” he said.

Father McNamara added that he’s delighted to have links to this potential future saint.

“It’s very interesting to be mixed up in something like this, very exciting,” he said.

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