Written by: Kevin DiCamillo, '92

Two Saints for Niagara?

Author’s note: In conformity with the decrees of Pope Urban VIII, we declare that there is no intention of anticipating, in any way, the judgment of the church.

Quick question: Who is the only American-born priest who has been canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church?

It’s a trick question: The answer is none. While the United States celebrates St. John Neumann as one of our own (he was born in Bohemia and served at parishes in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo), and we do have some home-grown women saints such as Katherine Drexel, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, and Kateri Tekakwitha, as well as the naturalized St. Frances Mother Cabrini, no American-born male has yet been canonized.

However, that may—may—be about to change: Two Niagara men, one an alum, the other a transfer, have been declared Venerable Servants of God, which puts them just one step away from being declared Blessed (beatified), and two steps away from the ultimate goal of any Catholic-Christian: sainthood (canonization).

But perhaps the most mind-bending part of this is that both men attended Niagara University’s Our Lady of Angels Seminary at the same time! Indeed, it is even possible, though unlikely, that they may have been classmates.

Father Nelson H. Baker—universally known as “Father Baker”—was the eldest man in his class. He had left a lucrative business career to study for the priesthood and entered Niagara as a seminarian in 1869. He finished his course of studies in 1874. His official story, which I had the distinct pleasure of editing, is told in Father of The Fatherless: The Authorized Biography of Father Nelson Baker by the noted church historian Rev. Richard Gribble, CSC.

Father Michael J. McGivney, however, had an even farther-reaching impact on the church: He founded the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic laymen’s society that brought life insurance to millions of Catholics who formerly could never afford such a “luxury.” He attended Niagara’s seminary from fall 1871 through the summer of 1872. Father McGivney’s definitive biography was penned by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster in Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism.

Although both men were formed by the Vincentian priests who ran Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Niagara, neither apparently aspired to be a member of the Vincentians or any other religious order, though Father McGivney would eventually wind up studying his theology at a Jesuit seminary in Montreal, and one run by the Sulpicians in Baltimore. Father Baker, of course, began a quick and meteoric climb up the ecclesiastical ladder, culminating in his titles of Protonotary Apostolic (Monsignor) and Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Buffalo.

However, the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, especially that saint’s love for the poor and suffering—what the church terms its “preferential option for the poor”—is obvious in both men. Father Baker spent his nearly 100 years (he lived well into the second administration of FDR, who phoned him on his 95th birthday) on this earth serving orphans, abandoned babies, troubled youths, the steelworkers of the “dark, satanic mills” of South Buffalo, and African-American Catholics at a time when it was unpopular, even unheard of.

Father McGivney, whose life was cut short by pneumonia in only his 38th year in 1890, did one thing that has forever changed the face of American Catholicism: he founded a men’s benevolent association that today boasts nearly 2 million members. And even more staggering: The Knights of Columbus hold $90 billion in life insurance policies, backed by nearly $20 billion in assets. Their life insurance is considered the gold standard, and the proceeds from this business fund the organization’s worldwide charitable programs.

And the closer we look at these two Venerable Servants of God, the more different they seem: Father Baker, the eldest member of his class, a lifelong Western New York resident, was a member of the drama and singing clubs. Father McGivney, still a teenager when he arrived at Monteagle Ridge, excelled in baseball and seemed to have had a bit of a peripatetic existence: After being born and raised in Connecticut, young McGivney began college studies for the priesthood at St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, then moved to Niagara and, after only three semesters, moved again to Montreal to study at the Jesuit’s Sainte-Marie College. After the death of his father, Father McGivney’s bishop preferred to keep him closer to Connecticut (or at least out of Canada), sending him to Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Seminary (run by the priests of Saint Sulpice), before being ordained and incardinated back in his native Connecticut.

So what are the chances that two Niagara classmates could possibly be declared Venerable Servants of God? Slim: There are only eight current venerables from the United States (or naturalized citizens). Venerable Solanus Casey, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar, is American born, but unlike Fathers Baker and McGivney, he is not a secular (diocesan) priest. Ironically (and incredibly), the only other American-born diocesan priest to be named Venerable Servant of God is Fulton J. Sheen, bishop of nearby Rochester, N.Y., from 1966-69, and a holder of an honorary degree from Niagara University!

It would be an archivist’s dream to come across an ancient daguerreotype of Fathers Baker and McGivney, circa 1871, side by side, heads bent in prayer in Alumni Chapel, or a candid of the two saintly men walking and talking on the verdant swards of Monteagle Ridge. Alas, no such photo exists. Indeed, due to the fact that Father McGivney was just entering the seminary while Father Baker was well on his way to finishing—and due to their age difference and preferences in how to spend their free time—it is unlikely (though not impossible) that the two men spent much, if any, time together, aside from group functions for seminarians in general.

No matter: The Vincentian spirit of Catholic social justice fired both Michael J. McGivney, the young, restless, wandering spirit, and Nelson H. Baker, the already elderly, former businessman and homebody, to take St.Vincent’s example to heart and to help the poorest of the poor. In this they were also echoing St. Francis’s famous phrase: “Preach the Gospel at all times—use words if necessary.”

And yet, when we step back from these two Venerable Servants of God whom Niagara is proud to call its own, they are very much in keeping with the tradition of service that Niagara is known for: the Vincentian Service Corps, Learn and Serve Niagara, Urban Plunge, and the myriad community-service opportunities that Campus Ministry coordinates. In fact, when I look back at my own years at Niagara, it’s hard to think of a friend or classmate who didn’t give back in a spirit of Christian charity: from Compeer Volunteers with the mentally ill, to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, to Helping Hands visits to the elderly and infirm—it was just something you did, that almost everybody did, not because you had to, but because it was part of the esprit that pervades Niagara.

It’s a tradition both Venerable Fathers Baker and McGivney can be proud of!


Kevin DiCamillo, ’92, is a contributing editor to Publishing Perspectives and the former poetry editor of Traffic East. His work has appeared in magazines and journals ranging from James Joyce Quarterly to Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and is a doctoral f ellow at St. John’s University. He currently resides with his wife and twins in New Jersey.