Father Nelson Baker — the “padre of the poor,” the man who built the Our Lady of Victory complex in Lackawanna into an astonishing city of charity that featured an orphanage, a boys’ protectory, a home for unwed mothers and their infants, a hospital, a grade school and high school, a nurses’ home, a farm to help feed the hungry, a soup kitchen that served more 450,000 meals during the first three years of the Great Depression, and finally the great basilica that has become a national shrine and pilgrimage site.
So many of these great works were enabled by Father Baker’s business acumen. As a new priest in the 1880s, when his part of the future Lackawanna was called Limestone Hill, he started a subscription campaign for donations. That campaign, along with money from his own pocket, wiped out the parish’s debts.
Still, by 1891 Father Baker’s parish was only barely scraping by — until he got a hunch.
Natural gas was being discovered across the region, and Baker figured there might be gas beneath parish land as well. But where exactly, he didn’t know. So he prayed before a small statue of Our Lady of Victory, convinced Bishop Steven Ryan of the Buffalo archdiocese to lend him funds to hire gas drillers, and got ready for the big day. The story of that day is told at Our Lady of Victory’s official website:
When the drillers arrived with their equipment, the foreman asked Father Baker where they were to begin drilling. His team was amazed when a huge procession of altar boys, Sisters, Brothers, and Father Baker exited the church carrying candles and praying the Rosary. They processed into an open field until Father stopped, sprinkled the ground with holy water, took a small statue of Our Lady out of his pocket, dug a hole in the ground, buried the statue, and told the workers: "Drill here, but try not to disturb the statue."
It took weeks and another loan from the Archdiocese, but finally, when the drillers reached the incredible depth of 1,137 feet, they struck gas. What became the Victoria Well provided natural gas for the entire parish complex, an enormous savings that helped fund Father Baker’s future projects — and it’s still producing gas today.
In 1999 — 63 years after his death — The Buffalo News named Father Baker the city’s most influential citizen of the 20th century. Today he is a candidate for sainthood, recognized by the Pope in 2011 for his “heroic virtue.” And most important of all, the OLV Parish continues to provide charitable services to those in need, more than 125 years after Father Nelson Baker prayed before that small statue of Our Lady of Victory.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Engineer: Xavier Harris
Father Nelson Baker: Bert Gambini
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, Former WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)