Michigan diocese marks 150th anniversary of Bishop Baraga’s death

‘Snowshoe priest’ inspired Father Pierz’s missionary vocation

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga, a 19th-century Slovenian missionary who served in the vast Michigan Territory to help build up the Catholic Church in America.

Bishop Baraga’s travels took him across northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Although he never came to the area that now makes up the St. Cloud Diocese, his stories of ministering in the wilderness inspired others to follow in his footsteps — including Father Francis Xavier Pierz, the “Father of the Diocese of St. Cloud,” who did missionary work in central Minnesota.

“After reading Father Baraga’s accounts written to the Leopoldine Missionary Society, 17 priests and seminarians were inspired to leave their Slovenian homeland and minister in this huge territory,” said Lenora McKeen, executive director of the Bishop Baraga Association, based in Marquette, Michigan.

“Three became bishops,” she said. “Two of Baraga’s successor bishops in Marquette attribute their missionary vocations to him.”

Father Pierz was one of the first to respond to Father Baraga’s passionate appeals, McKeen said.

Father Pierz was already 50 when he arrived in Detroit in the autumn of 1835. He served Native American communities around Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior for 16 years and then was drawn to evangelize in the Minnesota Territory.

For 22 years, Father Pierz encouraged Minnesota’s growing immigrant French and German settlers while serving as a missionary priest for its Ojibwe bands.

150th anniversary

Bishop Frederic Baraga

The Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, which Bishop Baraga led, commemorated the 150th anniversary of his death with a Mass Jan. 19 and a world premier April 20 of the EWTN film “They Might Be Saints: Bishop Frederic Baraga.”

The Bishop Baraga Association, in collaboration with the Diocese of Marquette, has created prayer cards, novena booklets and postcards to mark the anniversary.

The series of six collectible postcards features sites in Michigan and Wisconsin where Bishop Baraga ministered and allows visitors to explore area churches. Pilgrims are encouraged to participate in a “camino” style self-guided pilgrimage to follow in the bishop’s footsteps. The postcards are available at each of the sites. (For more information about the pilgrimage, visit bishopbaraga.org and click on “Bishop Baraga Pilgrimage 2018.”)

Plans are still being finalized for this year’s Baraga Days, held Aug. 18-19 in Marquette.

First Slovenian missionary

The young Bishop Baraga was born June 29, 1797, in the Duchy of Carniola in the Habsburg Empire (current-day Slovenia) to considerable means and position, but was orphaned at age 14.

Due to the political upheavals of Slovenia, he became fluent in many languages. He studied law at the University of Vienna, graduating with high honors.

“Baraga could have had a comfortable life. But he wasn’t looking for a life of ease. He felt he was called to something more,” McKeen said. “Instead he chose hardship and sacrifice to fulfill his calling.”

The young Baraga sought advice from Father Clement Hofbauer, a Redemptorist priest caring for the poor of Poland and Austria, who stirred him to study for the priesthood.

Ordained in 1823, he responded to the Diocese of Cincinnati’s request to establish Indian missions in America, arriving in New York on Dec. 31, 1830.

For the next 37 years, he traveled the length and breadth of the Great Lakes area, ministering to the Ottawa and Ojibwe Indians, walking and snowshoeing hundreds of miles to minister to his people.

At that time, Michigan Territory included the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and parts of North and South Dakota.

“[The young Baraga] picked up where the Jesuits left off. The natives were hungry to learn the faith and for a ‘Black Robe’ (priest) to teach it to them,” McKeen said.

“Bishop Baraga served the Native American communities with gentleness. As his motto teaches, ‘Only one thing is necessary.’ He knew what was important — to know, love and serve the Lord. He persevered through some very challenging times and conditions.”

Preaching in French, English, Ottawa and Ojibwe languages, he established Michigan missions at Arbre Croche (present-day Cross Village), Grand River (present-day Grand Rapids) and L’Anse, and at La Point, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior. With a territory of over 80,000 square miles, Father Baraga earned the names of “Apostle of the Lakelands” and “snowshoe priest.”

He traveled to a number of Indian communities around Lake Superior, including Grand Portage, Minnesota. In later years, he ministered to European immigrants working in the iron and copper mines of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Over his lifetime, Bishop Baraga wrote the first book written in the Ottawa language — a prayer book and Catholic catechism. He authored 20 Native American books, including “Grammar and Dictionary of the Chippewa Language,” still in use today, as well as a three-volume diary of his missionary activities and seven Slovenian prayer books. He was the first bishop to write a pastoral letter in both English and Ojibwe.

On Nov. 1, 1853, he was consecrated the first Bishop of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, continuing to travel on snowshoes to his mission communities. Sault Ste. Marie was his See City until 1864, when population shifts caused the see to be transferred to Marquette. Bishop Baraga died Jan. 19, 1868.

McKeen described Bishop Baraga as a man with great passion for his faith.

“Each day he prayed up to three hours before beginning his priestly tasks,” she said. “One day in his diary he wrote that he had overslept and was mad at himself for having ‘taken time away from Christ.’ But he always helped others to have their best faith.

“Bishop Baraga is a role model for us all. It’s what we need in this increasingly secularized world we live in,” McKeen said. “We might even ask, ‘What would Baraga do?’ as we look at our own challenges and try to find faith answers to lead us.”

His cause for sainthood was furthered by Pope Benedict XVI, who declared him “Venerable” May 10, 2012. The last two steps to sainthood are beatification and canonization.

To obtain a Bishop Baraga prayer card or novena booklet, please contact The Visitor copy editor Nikki Rajala at nrajala@gw.stcdio.org or 320-258-7622.


Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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