Nelson Henry Baker was Born in Buffao, NY on February 16, 1842. This was a thriving era for the city. Many immigrants came through the city on their ventures west. One on these immigrants was Nelson's father, Lewis Baker. Lewis settled in Buffalo and made his living as a grocer. It was Lewis who instilled in Nelson an acute business sense; and it was his mother, Caroline, who nurtured in Nelson a strong belief in the Catholic faith. Nelson's upbringing would have a strong effect on how he lived the rest of his life.
Nelson enlisted to fight in the American Civil War in July of 1863, when he was still a young man. Just hours after he signed up, his regiment marched out of New York and on through Pennsylvannia to the infamous battle of Gettysburg. After his regiment's duties were completed on the Pennsylvania front, they were on to New York City to help quell riots. Thirty days after he shipped out, Nelson's term of enlistment was up and he was on his way back to Buffalo.
When he returned, aclose friend of Nelson's by the name of Joseph Meyer suggested the two start a business together. Although Nelson was already contemplating priesthood, he entered the into a partnership with his friend. Eventually the duo built a vary successful feed and grain endeavor. As the years passed, the business prospered. Nelson began to give what he could to those less fortunate that he. The call to priest hood grew stronger and stronger in him. In an attempt to clear his head, Nelson took a steam boat trip along the shores of the Great Lakes.
During the trip he attended masses in a number of cities. Upon returning he had made up his mind. He was going to become a priest. On September 2, 1869, at the age of 28, Nelson entered the college department of Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Suspension Bridge in Niagara Falls (what is now Niagara University). He participated in all aspects of seminary life, and enjoyed participating in live musical and theatrical productions and debates.
In 1874 Nelson read about the first American pilgrimage to Rome being organized and desired desperately to go. He gathered enough money and boarded a ship to Europe. While in Paris, Nelson spent a lot of time admiring the shrine to Our Lady of Victory. He felt very strongly that it was his purpose to devote his life in dutifull service to her. The pilgrims met with Pope Pius IX at the Vatican and then headed home. Nelson.s faith was stronger that ever.
On March 19, 1876, at the age of 34, Nelson Baker became Father Nelson Baker as he was ordainded to the priesthood. Just a few weeks late he received his first assignment in Limestone Hill (what is today Lackawanna, NY). It was a parish that had a church, an orphanage, and a protectory for young boys. Fr. Baker was transfered to Corning, NY in 1881, but returned to Limestone Hill in 1882 as a pastor of the parish and superintendent of the protectory and orphanage.
Immediately after his return, a group of angry creditors informed Fr. Baker of a $56,000 debt the institutions had surmounted and demanded immediate payment. Fr. Baker calmed the man and assured them they would recieve their money. Because of the good name that Fr. Baker had built for himeslf during his business days, the creditors were satisfied with his word. Fr. Baker used the rest of his personal accounts to pay off much of the debt and set up verbal agreements to fulfill the rest.
Knowing this was just a temporary fix to the parish's money problems, Fr. Baker saught for new ways to make revenue for the parish. He came up with the idea of the Association of Our Lady of Victory. He gather names and addresses of Catholic women from postmasters all over the country. He wrote to the, asking for their help in caring for his dependent boys by joining the association for 25 cents a year. The idea caught on very quickly and in little time the Limestone Hill institutins were debt free. In fact by the end of June, 1889, a beautiful new chapel and larger protectory had been built.
In the late 1880's Buffalo had begun to harness the power of natural gas. Fr. Baker was intrigued by the idea of the parish having its own source of light and heat and not having to buy it anymore. With a $2,000 donation from the Bishop of Buffalo, Fr. Baker hired a group of Pennsylvania drillers. He led a procession of parishoners to a specific spot where he took out a small statue of Our Lady of Victory and buried it in the ground, and instructed the drillers to drill precisely there. Weeks went by without any success, and the local paper's dubbed the project "Father Baker's Folly". Most natural gas wells are found at a depth of around 600 feet. The Limestone Hill drillers had already passed 1,000 feet, but Fr. Baker insisted they continue. On August 22, 1891, at 1,137 feet, gas was finally struck. Fr. Baker named it Victoria well. To this day the well continues to provide natural gas to some of the buildings of the OLV Institutuins. Typically, most natural gas wells dry up only after a few years.
The OLV Institutions continued to grow and prosper under the watchful eye and keen senses of Fr. Baker. In 1897, the protectory was expanded again and a new Working Boys Home was built for the older boys who were getting jobs in the community. In 1903, Fr. Baker was named Vicar General of the Diocese of Buffalo, which is basically the Bishop's right-hand man.
Around this time, news of infant bones being collected out of the Erie Canal apalled Fr. Baker. He immediately announced plans to construct an infant home to offer care and refuge for unwanted infants and mothers. The home was completed by 1908 and quickly became filled. A fews years later it was apparent to Fr. Baker the overcrowded infant home was in need of expansion. So he unveiled plans for a Maternity Hospital in 1914. It was finished in 1919, and one year later was converted into a general hospital.
After all he had done, at the age 79, rest was the last thing on Fr. Baker's mind. He still had one more dream, the OLV Basilica, a glorious tribute to his patroness, Our Lady of Victory. But in order to make the dream a reality, he needed a lot of money. Being the clever man he was, he started a brick buying drive. The Basilica was completed in May of 1926, the year of the 50 anniversary of Fr. Baker's priesthood.
On July 29, 1936, Fr. Baker passed away in room 215 of the very hospital he had built. He was 94 years old. It was estimated that nearly a half of a million people lined up for miles to view Father Baker's body in the days following his death.