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“The Snowshoe Priest”: Ven. Frederic Baraga, remembered

The intrepid first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan is still venerated for his great holiness and forward-thinking attitude.

(Left) Ven. Frederic Baraga late in his life (photo via www.stpetercathedral.org); (right) Jack E. Anderson's "Snowshoe Priest" (1969) sculpture of Bishop Baraga in L'Anse, Michigan (photo via Wikipedia).

Venerable Frederic Baraga (1797-1868), the first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, was the first of many Slovenian missionaries who came to establish the Catholic Church in the Great Lakes region of the United States. His cause for canonization was opened in 1952; in 2012, he was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI.

He was born in Slovenia, the fourth of five children in an affluent family. He earned a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1821, but opted to enter the seminary rather than pursue a career in law. He was ordained a priest in 1823. Answering the call to be a missionary in the New World, he came to the United States in 1830. He spent the next 37 years of his life ministering to the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and European immigrants of the Great Lakes region.

He was consecrated a bishop and appointed vicar apostolic of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1853.  In 1857, the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie (today called the Diocese of Marquette) was established, and he was named bishop.

The Diocese of Marquette tells the story of its first bishop and supports his cause for canonization through its Bishop Baraga Association. On January 19-20, 2018, the association commemorated the 150th anniversary of Bishop Baraga’s death with a variety of activities. Lenora McKeen, director of the Bishop Baraga Association, recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: What are some of your favorite stories about Bishop Baraga?

Lenora McKeen: There are many. One that comes to mind happened in the winter, when someone came to him and told him a native girl was dying. She had not yet been baptized. The bishop strapped on his snowshoes and walked 57 miles through the snow so he could baptize her. He couldn’t fathom the idea of her dying without baptism.

Another memorable story occurred in the winter of 1853. He was told of a family in desperate need of medicine and provisions. He loaded up what supplies he could carry, and took off on a 250-mile trip to help them. About 90 miles from his destination, his snowshoes gave out, and he was stuck in the snow. By chance, he met a trader who worked for the federal government. He explained the situation, and the trader gave him some new snowshoes. Bishop Baraga was able to go off on his way again. The trader later speculated that Bishop Baraga would have died out there in the snow if it hadn’t been for their chance meeting.

But that was the way Bishop Baraga thought. No distance was too great for him to travel, and he’d put himself in harm’s way if he had the chance to help another and save a soul. In one letter he wrote to his sister, in fact, he said that the salvation of one soul was worth more than all the money in the world.

CWR: That explains why one of his nicknames is “The Snowshoe Priest.”

McKeen: Yes. He covered vast regions of Michigan in his ministry long before the creation of the infrastructure we have today. He was able to use a canoe in the summer, and later in his life he was able to take advantage of steam ships and trains for short distances. But, for the most part, it meant he walked. It was the way he could cover the most territory and do the most work. I don’t ever recall a reference to him riding a horse.

CWR: What have you read about Bishop Baraga’s personality? What did people say he was like?

McKeen: He was gentle, and very intelligent. By the time he was 16, he was fluent in six languages. He had a gift for the acquisition of language, and worked hard at doing it. It was important to him that he be able to communicate with as many people as possible. This fits into his style of evangelism; he wanted to meet people where they were at, so that he could walk with them. Communicating to them in their own language was part of this.

After coming to the US, he went to work learning the language of the natives. He hired an 18-year-old native to teach him the local language, and worked tirelessly to learn it. The people saw his willingness to learn their language and their way of living, and it had an impact on them.

He went on to write the Grammar and Dictionary of the Chippewa Language, still in use today. He did this so the natives could better pass their language on to their children, and also for his priests, so they could communicate with the natives.

CWR: Was he well known in his day?

McKeen: Yes, he had a huge following. [When he was still in Europe,] people would come from miles around to attend his Masses or to go to confession with him. Some of his fellow priests were unhappy about this, so his bishop moved him to a remote parish. People still flocked to him.

Meanwhile, Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati put out a call for missionaries to serve in the vast regions surrounding the Great Lakes. So, to escape the jealousy of his fellow priests in Europe, and to answer Bishop Fenwick’s call, he went. The Jesuits had passed through the Great Lakes area, but at that time there were no priests living there to provide Mass and the sacraments. That was perfect for Bishop Baraga, as he was all about bringing the faith of Christ to the people and providing the sacraments.

He did go back to Europe, however, in search of funds for the missions and of missionaries to assist him in his work. We know of at least 17 missionaries who came in response to his invitation; three would go on to become bishops themselves.

Remember, Bishop Baraga was from a family of nobility. They were wealthy, and he could have lived a comfortable life back in Europe. But he didn’t want all that. He renounced his inheritance [while] in the seminary, only asking for a $300-per-year stipend to cover his expenses. He instead chose an often-difficult life in America.

Although he’s been dead 150 years, the people of Marquette remember him today. We have schools that bear his name, as well as a town, a state park, roads, and shrines. In Marquette, his name is everywhere.

CWR: He is remembered as a friend to the Indians.

McKeen: Yes. Once, for example, fur traders came to Grand River and tried to get the natives to turn their land over to them so they could hunt on it. They gave the natives alcohol to take advantage of them. Bishop Baraga saw what they were trying to do, and took a vow of temperance. He asked the natives to do the same.

Or another example comes from the 10 years he spent in L’Anse, the longest he stayed in one place. He was able to get money from his sister so he could purchase 500 acres of land for the natives so they could have their own homestead. Later, the government wanted to take the land, so Bishop Baraga was able to take advantage of his legal education to save the homestead for the natives.

CWR: He was also devoted to prayer, beginning his day with three hours of prayer early in the morning.

McKeen: He’d “sleep in” until 4 am in the winter, but otherwise he’d start his day with prayer at 3 am.  One time he wrote that he was furious at himself because he’d overslept one day and missed his time with Jesus. He resolved never to let that happen again. To him, only one thing was necessary, to have God in your life. Nothing else was that important.

To help him in his prayer life, he had the spiritual advice of Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli (1806-1864), a Dominican priest who worked nearby. They were spiritual advisors to one another.

CWR: How did his life end?

McKeen: In 1866, he traveled to Baltimore for a bishop’s conference. He had a stroke while there. The other bishops didn’t want him to return to Marquette, but he convinced the priest who had traveled with him to take him back to Marquette anyway. The stroke inhibited his ability to speak and walk, however, and he died about one-and-a-half years later.

CWR: What is the status of Bishop Baraga’s cause for canonization?

McKeen: We’re in search of a miracle so that we can have him declared “blessed.” We had one case being reviewed by a medical commission in Rome in 2015, but in 2016, Pope Francis made changes to the process, so we hope to have another case of a miraculous healing reviewed soon.

CWR: How did your 150th anniversary observance of Bishop Baraga’s death go?

McKeen: It went very well. Michael O’Neill of EWTN came to show a clip from his film They Might Be Saints: Bishop Frederic Baraga, which will air in its entirety April 20-21. Curtis Chambers, who has done extensive research into the travels of Bishop Baraga, made a presentation. For the past six or seven years, he has walked the same routes Bishop Baraga did, without the aid of modern technology.

We also prayed the Rosary and Chaplet [of Divine Mercy]. We had had private veneration of Bishop Baraga’s stole. People could come and pray, and touch it.

CWR: When people visit Marquette, what are some Bishop Baraga-related sites they should see?

McKeen: The place to start is St. Peter’s Cathedral—for which Bishop Baraga laid the cornerstone in 1864—where his body has been interred. In 2014, we built a side chapel for his remains.

They also can come to the Baraga House, near St. Peter’s, where Bishop Baraga spent the last years of his life. We’re in the midst of creating a Baraga Education Center there, which should be open in July. There will be a museum and gift shop; people can also see the room where he died. We’ll also be moving the offices of the Bishop Baraga Association there, so we’ll be available to greet people and share about Bishop Baraga’s life.

Over time, we’ll be building a prayer garden, Rosary path and Stations of the Cross outside. There will be a replica of a Chippewa wigwam, similar to what the bishop lived in when he was with the natives, and a replica of Mala Vas, the house in Slovenia where Bishop Baraga was born. And we’ll have a votive house, where people can light candles.

Visit the association’s website, and you’ll see many other Baraga sites.

CWR: How can people learn more about the life of Bishop Baraga?

McKeen: They can visit our website, and under the merchandise tab, there are books about his life. They might like to start with Joseph Gregorich’s The Apostle of the Chippewas. It was Gregorich (1889-1984) who started the Bishop Baraga Association in 1930, and if it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be a cause. Between 1930 and 1970, he worked tirelessly to collect and transcribe documents about the bishop’s life, making trips to Europe to collect records.

Gregorich is deceased, but his daughter is still involved with the cause. In fact, she wrote Growing Up with Bishop Baraga, a book about her family and the bishop. She was an only child, and her parents were so devoted to Bishop Baraga, that he seemed like a brother to her.

CWR: What should people today know about Bishop Baraga?

McKeen: He is a role model for our time. He wrote a pastoral letter in 1853, released in both English and Chippewa, in which he refers to the natives as his children. You could have put the date 2018 on it, as it is forward-thinking. He asks for tolerance, acceptance, and love among his people, saying that’s what God wants from us. We’re to be brothers and sisters to one another. That’s how he lived his life, offering everything for the glory of God.

I have had the honor in my life of twice being blessed with his stole. I am a breast cancer survivor, and my devotion to him has changed my perspective entirely. Rather than complaining about my illness, and having a worldly, “woe is me” attitude, he has helped me elevate and spiritualize my sufferings. My connection to him has helped me through this difficult experience, and I’ll be forever grateful to him.


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About Jim Graves 159 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

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