Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, one of the most magnificent churches in the United States, is approaching the 100th anniversary of its groundbreaking. The shrine was founded under the direction of Venerable Nelson Baker (1842-1936), a Union army soldier during the Civil War, businessman, diocesan priest, and, perhaps, a future canonized saint. The shrine is the nation’s second basilica, designated as such by Pope Pius XI in 1926, and it draws 40,000 visitors annually.
The shrine got its start in 1916, when the former St. Patrick’s Parish was severely damaged by fire. Father Baker, age 74 at the time, began repairs, but one day announced at a parish meeting his vision of building a shrine to rival the great cathedrals of Europe. In 1921, Father celebrated his last Mass at St. Patrick’s; the parish made way for the construction of a shrine that would cost a staggering $4 million (in 1920s dollars). Father Baker was an able fundraiser, and by the time of its completion in 1925, had completely paid for the entire edifice.
The shrine has a marble exterior—46 types and colors of marble are used throughout—with twin towers and a huge copper dome measuring 165 feet high and 80 feet in diameter. Around the dome are four, 18-foot copper angels blowing trumpets. Other key external features include a large statue of Our Lady of Victory at the main entrance. The building has 134 stained glass windows, and an interior with many beautiful works of art and magnificent architecture (a 3D tour is available online).
Commenting on the shrine, well-known church architect Duncan Stroik once noted, “The exterior is a beacon in the city, it’s a light on a hill,” and its interior “a precursor to heaven.”
“It is meant to lift you up, it’s meant to dazzle and also a sense of mystery,” Stroik said (a short film on the shrine, for which Stroik was intereviewed, can be viewed online).
Father Baker was born and raised in Buffalo. He was baptized in the Lutheran faith, the faith of his father, and rebaptized at age 10 a Catholic, the faith of his mother. He served in the 74th New York regiment during the Civil War, and afterwards ran a successful grain and feed business. He entered the seminary in Niagara Falls, and was ordained a priest in 1876. He was a parish priest, and was active in a variety of apostolates, including an orphanage, school, and home for unwed mothers.
He brought his business prowess with him to the priesthood. In order to help fund his ministries, for example, he authorized drilling for natural gas on church property, eventually discovering it in 1891. Despite his advanced age, he embarked on the building of the shrine in the 1920s, sending letters to Catholics nationwide asking them to send needed funds.
The institutions he established still exist today, and since his death, many miracles have been reported through his intercession (a film on Father Baker’s life can be viewed here).
Our Lady of Victory is both a national shrine and diocesan parish. Msgr. David LiPuma has served as pastor of the shrine since 2019. In residence is Msgr. Paul Burkard, retired pastor of 12 years, who is vice postulator of Father Baker’s cause for canonization.
Both priests recently spoke with CWR about the shrine and its founder.
CWR: What buildings will visitors see when they arrive at the shrine?
Msgr. David LiPuma: The first thing they’ll notice is the beautiful basilica. Directly across from the church there is the original orphanage, once cared for by the Sisters of St. Joseph. It predates Father Baker’s arrival, although he expanded it when he got here. Today, the building houses Our Lady of Victory (OLV) charities.
A second building you’ll see is a former home for unwed mothers, once providing pregnant women with a safe place to give birth to their children. Today, it houses OLV human services, providing more than 4,000 services in various programs to families.
A third building is a former hospital founded by Father Baker, which is today a senior living facility. Next to the rectory is Baker Hall, which houses a program for troubled youth in grades 7 to 12. It takes in young people from 40 different school districts; this is a ministry in which Father Baker was involved which we still operate today. It is one of our most challenging, yet rewarding ministries.
Behind the basilica is an elementary school for grades pre-K to 8. The whole property takes up two city blocks.
CWR: What is the significance of the shrine to the Diocese of Buffalo and to the United States?
Msgr. LiPuma: When Father Baker entered seminary, he went on pilgrimage to Rome. He stopped at Our Lady of Victories Parish in Paris, and was taken by a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Victory. He decided he would dedicate his entire priestly ministry to her. As life went on, whenever he was complimented for his good work, he’d give the credit to her.
He also promised to build Our Lady of Victory a shrine. So, late in life, when many people are only thinking of retiring, this elderly man decided to build a basilica. Everyone was in amazement of the magnificent result, and people still are today. I just met a pilgrim in the church, and he was in awe. He said, “I just can’t believe Father Baker did all this.” Father Baker has been recognized as the City of Buffalo’s most influential person. He is a testament to what a man of faith can accomplish.
God gave Father Baker the grace and strength to establish the shrine, and his work still goes on today. We have more than 1,000 employees, and each is committed to Father Baker’s legacy of caring for the poor and vulnerable.
CWR: What are some features of the shrine that catch your eye?
Msgr. LiPuma: The angels. There are at least 2,004 depictions of angels throughout the church. When you look up, Father Baker wanted you to see angels. It raises you up spiritually, as if you’re looking up into heaven.
There are many other impressive features, such as the 18-foot tall statue of Our Lady of Victory over the main altar.
CWR: What is the best way for visitors to enjoy the shrine?
Msgr. LiPuma: We have tours on Sundays at 1 and 2 pm. At other times of the week, people can call the shrine and set up a tour. For those unable to physically come, they can tour the site virtually online.
CWR: What needs does the shrine have?
Msgr. LiPuma: We’re always in need of funding. In 2021, we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of our groundbreaking and the laying of our cornerstone. We’re looking forward to building a preservation society with people from throughout the country. In a nearly 100-year-old building there are always things in need of fixing. We recently had a serious drainage problem we had to spend $100,000 to fix. We won’t be doing anything to change the interior—it is beautiful as it is—but it does need to be maintained. Other upcoming projects, as we raise the money, include renovation of our back lot entrance.
CWR: What major annual events do you have at the shrine?
Msgr. LiPuma: On the Sunday closest to July 29, we celebrate Father Baker Day with a Mass and reception. July 29, 1936 is the date of Father Baker’s death. We also have an observance on February 16, Fr. Baker’s birthday, and October 7, the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, which is now the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
CWR: What is the status of Fr. Baker’s cause for canonization?
Msgr. Paul Burkard: His cause was accepted by Rome in 1988, and he was named Venerable in 2011. If a miracle worked through his intercession is accepted by Rome he can be beatified, and if another miracle is accepted, he can move on to being declared a saint.
People coming to the shrine today can visit Father Baker’s tomb, and we’ve built a museum that walks you through his life, talks about his ministries and has information on his canonization.
CWR: Why do you think he’s a good candidate for sainthood?
Msgr. Burkard: As documents presented to Rome indicate, he is a man of outstanding virtue. He was exceedingly kind to the poor and disadvantaged, especially children, at a time when his help was particularly needed. He took care of orphans and children in trouble, and expanded other ministries.
We still have people living in the parish who took First Communion from him. They talk about his kindness. I’ve met people who were once residents of OLV’s orphanage, and describe him as the only father they ever knew. That’s where we derived the title of our biography of Father Nelson, Father of the Fatherless, by Father Richard Gribble. That’s the way they thought of him: kind, caring, and concerned about their future.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!