Born February 16, 1842, in New York, his home community of Buffalo would eventually name Father Nelson Baker “Buffalo’s most influential citizen of the 20th century.” Before being ordained a priest, Baker served in the Civil War as a Union soldier in the 74th regiment of the New York State Militia. Following his time as a soldier, Baker started a successful feed and grain business with a veteran friend, joined the St. Vincent De Paul Society, and started taking Latin classes. He entered Our Lady of Angels Seminary — now Niagara University — on September 2, 1869, and was ordained on March 19, 1876, by Bishop Stephen Ryan at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo.
After donating his life savings to alleviate the debt accrued by the orphanages and other institutions Father Baker was entrusted with, his devotion to Our Lady of Victory inspired him to begin The Association of Our Lady of Victory. Via this charitable organization, Baker hand-wrote thousands of letters that went out to Catholics across America soliciting donations to support the facilities. Catholics everywhere joined the Association of Our Lady of Victory with their twenty-five cent annual membership dues.
Father Baker’s community of faithful financial supporters continued to help him build resources for those in need. He tripled the number of children in his orphanages, built a home for unwed mothers, began a maternity hospital that eventually became a full-service hospital, built a debt-free church for worship and gathering nearby and more! His vision became a safe location for destitute people to come and be cared for. Once the Great Depression hit, it is estimated that 500,000 people were fed at his church, Our Lady of Victory, during those years. In his 90’s, he shifted focus to the service and education of black Americans traveling north for work and opportunity.
Following his death on July 29, 1936, between 300,000 and 500,000 people visited to pay their respects before his funeral. The many Our Lady of Victory outreach institutions he championed can still be found operating today in Lackawanna, New York. Father Baker was declared Venerable in 2011 and is still awaiting sainthood.