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Marquette Monthly
January, 2002

Back Then, Larry Chabot
On This Spot: The Baraga Legacy

The 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 apart—almost 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 of
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 carried there.
  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 to them.
  "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 possession."
  For various reasons, Baraga's casket was reopened on several occasions—first in 1875 to retrieve some valuable items which had been buried with him, and again following a church fire in 1879. At that time,
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, thick hair.
  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 granted."
  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 done.
  "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."

—Larry Chabot



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