To anyone born and raised in Lackawanna, the stern threat, “You better behave or I’ll send you to Father Baker’s” remains forever burned into one’s ears. It turns out, chances are that same phrase remains forever burned in the ears of a child raised by someone born in Lackawanna. Like mine.
I can definitely see my grandmother shouting this phrase at my uncles when they were kids. The effect was no doubt the same on them as it was on me when my mother tried using it. Actually, it probably wasn’t the same. By the time I was old enough to realize the truth behind “Father Baker’s,” it looked just like the school it was. The orphanage of my uncles’ youth had been torn down before I was born.
To me, though, Father Baker’s wasn’t the school, it was the church and the amazing story behind it. Our regular church was St. Anthony’s on Ingham Avenue, the proverbial “other side of the tracks” where my mother’s family lived. We had cousins who were parishioners at Our Lady of Victory (the official name of “Father Baker’s”). Every once in a while, we dressed up extra special, promised to behave (lest we be sent there forever) and journeyed to Mass at Father Baker’s. Although I was yet to experience a European Cathedral, something inside my prepubescent heart told me this church would rival some of those in the old country.
But the story of Father Baker, as told by my grandmother to my mother and my mother to me, with incidental corrections from my grandmother, is as inspirational in their telling as it is in reality. This was the tale they told me. One day, the diocese assigned Father Baker to their orphanage on the corner of Ridge Road and South Park. As soon as he had arrived, he learned the institution was deeply in debt and was about to be closed. After a night of intense prayer, he took a stroll on the campus’ vast grounds. Something told him to stop on a certain spot. It was on that spot that drillers discovered a natural gas well, and the money from that well saved the orphanage and allowed Father Baker to build the grandest church in all of Greater Western New York.
Pretty cool, huh? Kinda brings a lump in your throat, all that “God’s way” stuff and everything.
There’s only one problem.
It’s not quite true.
Here’s the real story. Indeed, in 1882 Father Baker was assigned to the diocesan protectorate atop “Limestone Hill” in what was then part of the Town of West Seneca. And, yes, when he arrived the creditors were waiting. But natural gas did not save that particular day. No. It so happened that Father Baker, when he was still simply Civil War veteran Nelson Henry Baker, was a very successful businessman. His partner was devastated when Nelson informed him he wanted to become a priest.1 Father Baker convinced the debt collectors to hold off by giving them the remainder of his life savings and reminding them of his past business success.2 Prayer gave him the inspiration to create The Association of Our Lady of Victory, and through this he raised the funds to pay off the remaining debt.3
A few years later, after learning how others had discovered nearby natural gas wells, Father Baker convinced the Bishop of Buffalo to provide $2,000 to him to drill on the property.4 He then took drillers down his usual prayer path until he came upon a particular spot, whereupon his stopped, buried a small statue of Our Lady of Victory and told the workers to start drilling.5 Going far beyond normal depths, skeptical drillers began calling the venture “Father Baker’s Folly,” but the Monsignor’s insistence to continue paid off when they found gas at an incredible depth of 1,135 feet (compared to a typical depth of 600 feet).6 The well continues to yield today, all the more amazing because wells typically run dry after only a few years,7 making it truly an Eternal Flame.
See, the true story is even more amazing.
The church where the Basilica now stands was originally called St. Patrick’s, at least until it burned to the ground in 1916, then it was probably called ashes. The 74 year-old Father Baker vowed to build a European-style cathedral and, again, relied on donations to fund it. To do this, he employed artisans from across the ocean and, in May of 1926, the same year Shea’s Buffalo and the Buffalo Airport opened and coincident to the 50th anniversary of him becoming a priest, Father Baker opened the Our Lady of Victory church without incurring any debt.8 Later in the year, Pope Pius XI declared it a minor Basilica.9
Because of its placement at the summit of Limestone Hill, you can see the Basilica from any one of many locations. It’s especially impressive coming towards it from the south on South Park Avenue. Its green dome, 165’ high and at the time of its construction second only to the U.S. Capital in size,10 peers over the nearby buildings, enticing you to come toward it. The best exterior view of the baroque structure comes from the north side of Ridge Road. From this vantage point, its dressing of Georgia and Carrara marble, as well as its signature twin towers,11 evokes wonder and awe. It makes you imagine if you’re not in Rome itself. And if the towers awe you now, think how you’d feel if you saw them as originally built. Until a violent thunder storm damaged them in 1941, the towers stood more than 16 stories tall, equal in height to the dome.12
The story of Father Baker goes beyond his ability to raise money, find a new energy source and build grand buildings. During the depression, and into his 90s, Father Baker’s vast complex served a million meals a year, provided clothing to more than 500,000 and offered medical services to 250,000,13 all without the need of the Federal government. In addition, this kind man, for all his business acumen, had a unique ability to connect to people, too. To this day, the boys, now old men, of his orphanage remember him with a special fondness. As of May 2012, only six “Father Baker Boys” survive, yet the stories they tell of “Daddy Baker” speak to the authentic veneration of the only parent they ever knew.14 Speaking of veneration, in January of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Father Baker to “Venerable” status, meaning his “heroic virtues” have been official recognized by the Church and he’s moved a step closer to canonization as a saint.15
As brilliant and proud we might be of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, many believe Louis Sullivan’s 1896 Prudential (née Guaranty) Building to be the most significant (remaining) architectural asset in Greater Western New York. The National Park Service declared the building a National Historic Landmark in 1975 because it represents “the last collaborative effort of its architects” [Adler and Sullivan], stating it was “a triumph of early skyscraper design.”16 Sullivan himself called it the “sister” of the Wainwright Building, his prototype skyscraper built five years earlier in St. Louis.17 The Prudential Building, located on 28 Church Street at the corner of Pearl Street in Buffalo, represents the capstone of Sullivan’s “form follows function” philosophy, and, with its fine exterior ornamentation, is considered by some as a “refinement” of the Wainwright.18
Travelling down just a block to the east on the other side of Main Street stands the 10 story Ellicott Square Building. Built the same year as Sullivan’s masterpiece, its terra cotta exterior has suffered in comparison to the Prudential’s similar covering, thanks in part to Sullivan’s more imaginative use of ornamentation.19 The Ellicott Square building was built on the block encircled by Main Street, Swan Street, Washington Street and South Division Street. When he layed out the city of Buffalo, Joseph Ellicott set aside this parcel for himself and his family; hence, the name “Ellicott Square.”20
At the time of its completion in 1896, the Ellicott Square Building, with 299,000 square feet of rentable space, was the largest office building in the world.21 By 1897, the building saw 10,000 people coming through its doors every day.22 For comparison sake, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 people working in the twin towers on September 11, 2011 (the total capacity for each tower was 25,000).23
By the turn of the nineteenth Century, Greater Western New York had established itself as a leading center for business, architecture, transportation and invention. But of all the inventions credited to our area, no one single product has produced so much money for so many for so long a time as the item we feature in our next chapter.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. You can order it right now by clicking this link that takes you to the publisher’s Amazon.com CreateSpace store.
1 Villarrubia, Eleonore, “The Servant of God, Father Nelson Baker,” Saint Benedict Center, January 31, 2006, http://catholicism.org/nelson-baker-sog.html |
2 Rovnak, Tamie, “Father Baker’s – AKA The Limestone Institutions,” Buffalo Orphanage Studies, http://buffalo-orphanage-studies.com/FatherBakerBegin.html |
4 “A Time of Need – 1882-1891,” Father Nelson Baker, Our Lady of Victory Institutions, 2002, http://www.ourladyofvictory.org/FatherBaker/need.htm |
8 “Twilight – 1921-1936,” Father Nelson Baker, Our Lady of Victory Institutions, 2002, http://www.ourladyofvictory.org/FatherBaker/twilight.htm |
9 Senner, Madis, “The Fountain of Compassion and Giving Our Lady of Victory Basilica Buffalo, NY,” http://www.jubileeinitiative.org/sacredbasilica.html |
10 “Our Lady of Victory Basilica and National Shrine,” Buffalo Architecture and History, http://www.buffaloah.com/a/LACK/ridge/767/ext/source/2.html |
11 Kowsky, Francis R., et. al., “Our Lady of Victory Basilica,” Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1981, p.290
12 “On-Line Tour of the Our Lady of Victory Basilica & National Shrine – Exterior,” Our Lady of Victory Institutions, http://www.ourladyofvictory.org/Basilica/tourex.html |
13 “Twilight – 1921-1936”
14 Levin, Scott, “Father Baker Boys Reminisce About Life At The Orphanage,” WGRZ Channel 2, Buffalo, Multimedia Entertainment, Inc., May 24, 2012, http://www.wgrz.com/rss/article/169249/13/Father-Baker-Boys-Reminisce-About-Life-At-The-Orphanage |
15 Burgess, Ryan, “Father Baker Closer to Canonization,” YNN, Buffalo, Time Warner, Inc., January 14, 2011, http://buffalo.ynn.com/content/all_news/530142/father-baker-closer-to-canonization/ |
16 “Prudential (Guaranty) Building,” National Historic Landmark Program, National Park Service, http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=1351&ResourceType=Building |
17 Kowsky, p.68
18 Ibid., p.68
19 Ibid., p.81
20 Brooks, Dana, “Daniel H. Burham, Joseph Ellicott and The Ellicott Square Building, Buffalo Architecture and History, 2005, http://www.buffaloah.com/a/main/295/brooks.html |
21 “Ellicott Square Building,” Ellicott Development website, Ellicott Development, http://www.ellicottdevelopment.com/portfolio/commercial/office/ellicott-square-building-295-main-st-buffalo/ |
22 “Ellicott Square Beehive,” Buffalo Evening News, February 1, 1897, http://www.buffaloah.com/a/main/295/hist/source/13.html |
23 Cauchon, Dennis, “For many on Sept. 11, survival was no accident,” USA Today, December 20, 2001, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/attack/2001/12/19/usatcov-wtcsurvival.htm |