On This Spot: The Baraga Legacy
renowned Frederic Baraga, first Catholic bishop of the Marquette diocese,
ranged thousands of miles in his ministry, from his native Europe to
North America, and back again. Yet he lived his last months, died and
was buried on one small plot of ground on South Fourth Street in Marquette.
On this same spot one of his successors, Bishop James Garland, presides
over the sprawling Marquette diocese, only a few yards from the Baraga
tomb. Coincidentally, both men were consecrated as bishops in the same
church in southern Ohio, 139 years apartalmost to the day.
Frederic Baraga was born in 1797 in a castle in Slovenia,
whose beautiful Danube valleys and Alps lowlands first were settled
in the sixth century. Called "the golden goose" which got
away from Yugoslavia when that country broke apart in 1991, Slovenia
is rich in resources and natural beauty, and boasts a peaceful countryside.
Baraga lived in the northwest corner of Slovenia, not far from the Italian
border. As an ordained priest whose wish was to work among American
Indians, the thirty-three-year-old Baraga left his home country for
New York, where he landed on the last day of 1830. Three weeks later
he reached Cincinnati.
Assigned to Michigan, he arrived at the Straits of Mackinac
on May 28, 1831; the following year he made his first crossing to the
Upper Peninsula, landing at Manistique. Baraga established missions
throughout the Upper Great Lakes, including Grand Rapids, Harbor Springs,
L'Anse and LaPointe, Wisconsin.
At that time, the U.P. was part of the Detroit diocese;
in 1853 it was carved out to form a separate seat. Frederic Baraga returned
to Cincinnati on November 1, 1853 for his consecration as first bishop
the new diocese. He also agreed to serve parts of the Lower Peninsula,
Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario, which greatly expanded his travels.
His tireless work among native peoples and immigrant miners made him
a legendary figure and resulted in his being proposed for sainthood
in the Catholic church.
Bishop Garland noted that there were few Catholics in the
Great Lakes region when Baraga arrived here in 1831. "He was very
much alone at first," Garland said. "When he journeyed by
snowshoes or canoe he had to rely on himself or bid help from strangers.
I think of his courage, dedication, sacrifice, love for Jesus Christ
and for the native Americans who did not know Christ."
Baraga logged some astonishingly long and difficult walks
as he traveled from one mission to the next, often in tough, wintry
conditions (thus the sobriquets "Shepherd of the Wilderness"
and "Snowshoe Priest").
Other early travelers wrote of their own struggles through deep, snowy
woods or drifted plains, then being startled to come upon Bishop Baraga
snowshoeing across their paths, or slogging by them in the opposite
direction. One such wayfarer was Marquette pioneer Peter White, who
got himself lost in the woods on the way to Eagle Harbor. Bishop Baraga,
who was snowshoeing back to Marquette when he came upon White, sent
some of his Native American friends to lead him out of the wilderness.
White was so grateful that he renamed Marquette's Superior Street after
his friend and rescuer.
"He sacrificed his own conveniences and comfort in
order to preach the gospel," said Bishop Garland. "He lived
in many makeshift places. He described one winter when it was too cold
for him to offer Mass because the water and wine would be frozen by
the time he came to the words of consecration!"
Garland described Marquette's first bishop as "a cultured
man, a man of letters and literature. He composed hymns and poetry and
prayers. He absorbed himself upon arrival in learning the Odawa'
and Ojibwa languages. It was the one thing necessary that gave him motivation
to continue his ministry."
The first diocesan seat was in Sault Ste. Marie, but poor
transportation and mail delivery, plus its location at the far eastern
end of the district, led parish priests to request that the seat be
moved closer to the geographic center of the Upper Peninsula. In 1866,
Baraga successfully petitioned Rome for permission to move his headquarters
to Marquette, which gave him and his priests better connections by both
boat and train.
But the tough life of a frontier missionary caught up with
him. While attending a bishops' conference in Baltimore, Maryland, he
suffered a stroke on November 11, 1866. Afraid that his fellow bishops
wouldn't let him return to the extreme weather conditions of his diocese,
he begged his traveling companion, Fr. Honoratus Bourion, to see that
he got home. Fr. Bourion practically carried Baraga to the train for
the return trip.
His health improved somewhat in 1867, but when he insisted
on blessing the cornerstone of a new church in Negaunee, he had to be
Then, in the early morning hours of January 19, 1868, while
laying on a plank in the front room of his Marquette residence, Bishop
Baraga passed away. The day of his funeral, January 30, was declared
a civic day of mourning in Marquette. Despite bitter cold and blizzard
conditions, the cathedral was filled to capacity, with an overflow crowd
standing outside in the storm.
Said Bishop Garland: "Perhaps Bishop Baraga was not
ready to die because so much work remained to be done. There were so
many souls he had not reached and who had not had the Gospel preached
"He was an ecumenist well before his time," Bishop
Garland continued. "Missionaries often are forced to use the principle
of epikeia, or suspending a law when circumstances make it morally impossible
to follow. For example, we know that he conducted Easter services for
a Protestant congregation when their own clergy was unable to do so.
"He was well loved by many of the clergy of other churches.
He suspected they would want to participate in his funeral Mass so he
instructed Father Edward Jacker to ask them to assist only as observers
so as not to cause any wonder or scandal to the Catholics. The stroke
he suffered in Baltimore had made him weak," said Bishop Garland,
"but he had his wits about him sufficient to give instructions
for his funeral. And he gave away the last bit of money he had in his
For various reasons, Baraga's casket was reopened on several
occasionsfirst in 1875 to retrieve some valuable items which had
been buried with him, and again following a church fire in 1879. At
eleven years after his death, the body was found to be perfectly preserved.
The remains were transferred to a steel casket in 1897 but
another fire at the cathedral in 1935 prompted a decision to rebury
him and other deceased bishops in a special crypt in the southeast corner
of the cathedral. In the spring of 1936 the caskets were moved to a
passageway between the rectory and cathedral. Baraga's casket was opened
once again prior to reburial. Despite the passage of sixty-eight years,
his face was easily recognizable. His head was still covered by long,
The crypt, where he is buried with five other bishops, lies
only a few feet from the original location of the house in which he
lived, worked and died. Built in 1855 on the site of the present diocesan
office building, the house was occupied by Bishop Baraga from 1866 until
his death. In 1872 it was moved two blocks to its present location at
615 South Fourth Street where it served as a private home until the
diocese purchased it in 1988 from the Wilfred Fleury estate. The Bishop
Baraga Association occupied the two-story building until that group
moved to the St. Joseph Center at 347 Rock Street last year. The house
now stands empty, and plans for it are unclear.
"If he is beatified by the Holy Father," said
Bishop Garland, "the brick house in which he died will receive
greater interest from the public. It will likely be a place of pilgrimage
for more people as they seek to learn from his life and touch the place
where holiness dwelled, so their particular needs and favors might be
Evidence of his legacy lives on in the offices and archives
of the Baraga Association, which was established in 1930 to promote
his canonization as a saint. Archivist Elizabeth Delene says the historical
collection is a treasure trove of Upper Great Lakes history. Contents
include maps, treaties, nearly 2,000 Baraga letters and other correspondence,
directories, books, periodicals, photographs, artifacts, books in the
Slovenian, Ottawa and Ojibwa languages and the Ojibwa Dictionary which
Baraga wrote and is still in use today. There also are materials from
the Office of Indian Affairs, the French Fur Company, Henry R. Schoolcraft,
the Mackinac Agency, Chief Blackbird and American Catholic Directories
for the period 1817 to 1870. The files are open to researchers by appointment,
and tours of the original Baraga house can be arranged through the Association
(906-227-9117). They publish a quarterly bulletin for their membership.
Current Bishop James Garland, who was born in Ohio on December
13, 1931, became Auxiliary to the Archbishop of Cincinnati in 1984.
On November 11, 1992, he was installed as the eleventh bishop of the
Marquette diocese. A few steps north of his office lies the tomb of
the first bishop, and a few hundred feet south is the relocated house
in which Baraga died.
Garland often reflects on his illustrious predecessor, who
shared this same spot in another time. "I have little in common
with him other than the fact we were both consecrated bishops in the
cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in Cincinnati, and that we both came
to the Upper Peninsula from Cincinnati. I pray for his intercession
so that in some measure we can accomplish what he, in his zeal, wanted
"I sit here beneath his picture and wonder whether
he would be displeased about my speaking about him. His humility would
disdain any words of praise directed toward him. His honesty and integrity
would demand accuracy and truth, and no flattery. I am more afraid of
his estimation of my ministry as his successor."