Father Baker’s “Miracles”

March 7, 2011


The move is on to canonize the late Monsignor Nelson H. Baker of Lackawanna, New York. Popularly known as “Padre of the Poor” for his charitable work, Baker (1841-1936) rescued an orphanage from financial trouble, then added a home for infants, a nurses’ home, a hospital, a farm (which helped feed the hungry), and a major construction effort, Our Lady of Victory Basilica, completed in 1925. Admirers of Baker are searching for the two miracles needed to make him a saint of the Catholic Church.

Numerous miracles have been claimed for Baker, and I have been investigating them since 1999, when Baker’s body was transferred from his grave site to a crypt inside the basilica in a move to promote his “cause” for canonization. (I have visited the relevant sites, gathered copious information, including acquiring for my collection a stack of scarce 1936 newspapers relating his death, funeral, and burial. I have made many visits to the basilica—which now features a museum devoted to Baker—and even once participated in a “healing” service there.)

Many Baker “miracles” have been cataloged by “historian” John Koerner. He penned The Mysteries of Father Baker (2005) which, for example, claims Baker once produced a miracle reminiscent of Jesus’ reported calming of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:22-25); the tale is attributed to two now-deceased nuns, and the alleged event is of unknown date and location! A second Koerner book, The Father Baker Code (2009), tells of healing and other “miracles” of Baker. These include his appearance as a ghost at the foot of a congregant’s bed (an obvious example of a common “waking dream”) and other folkloric tales in multiple, irreconcilable versions.

One purported miracle, which involves devout, if morbid, fascination with blood, concerns three vials of fluid (presumed blood) drained from the priest’s corpse during the embalming process. The vials had been interred with his body, and when it was exhumed in 1999, the fluid was found to be still in a liquid state—a fact the faithful believed indicated a miracle. However, medical authorities were generally unimpressed, including a pathologist I interviewed whom the church had consulted in the matter. Experts pointed out, for example, that—if the vials had been completely sealed—there would be no reason to expect evaporation, and that there were plausible explanations for the blood not congealing as well (see Koerner 2005, 62-70). The church rejected the “blood miracle.”

Currently, the Vatican, which has elevated Baker to “Venerable” status, is considering a particular medical case, that of a woman who recovered from “what doctors later discovered was a catastrophic stroke.” (An earlier case, involving a man who woke from an almost decade-long coma was complicated by his doctors’ use of experimental drugs, the brevity of his awakening—just sixteen hours—and his relapse and subsequent death, as well as his family having prayed to countless holy figures, not just Nelson Baker.) When an article on Baker appeared in the Buffalo News , I responded with a letter to the editor, which was published under the heading “A so-called miracle has never been proved”:

All Father Baker needs is a miracle’ in the Feb. 20 News was an excellent, objective article on the case of the late celebrated local priest who must have one miracle for beatification and another for sainthood. I would like to add a couple of important points.

First, ‘miracle’ is not a scientific term, and indeed science has never proved the occurrence of a single miracle. The Catholic Church’s process of validating so-called miracles is based on a logical fallacy called ‘arguing from ignorance’—that is, from a lack of knowledge. One cannot say, ‘We don’t know why a person’s medical condition improved remarkably, so it must be a miracle.’

Second, not only is such an argument unscientific, but it is actually anti-scientific in its implication. It’s obviously meant to keep science in a position subservient to the supernatural, when in fact there is no credible evidence for other than a real, natural world. If the Church wishes to honor Baker for his public service, it should by all means do so. But let there be an end to the miracles game.