The Venerable Nelson H. Baker earned his title "Servant of God" by helping those with the greatest need. Well known as the "Padre of the Poor" and father figure to the orphaned Baker Boys, the Lackawanna hero also had a hand in helping the African-American population in the Diocese of Buffalo.
As a soldier in the New York militia, Father Baker had fought to end slavery, and saw blacks attacked by Irish in the New York City draft riots as both competed for low-paying jobs. After entering the priesthood, Father Baker met a priest who had worked with blacks in Kentucky, who encouraged Father Baker to work with blacks if he had the opportunity. The opportunity came when the Bethlehem Steel Company opened in Lackawanna in 1899. The chance for employment drew people from across the country, including a number of African-Americans. "Some were baptized in the Church. Others were unbaptized," explained Msgr. Paul J.E. Burkard, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, founded by Father Baker. "Typical of Father Baker, when he saw a concern or a problem, he tried to move to meet it. His solution was to form a black congregation. He used the Brothers of the Holy Infancy, who were here on the property, to help to run the parish."
The first multiethnic mission, later known as Queen of All Saints, would be served by the Diocese of Buffalo's first black priest, Father William C. Grau.
Over a period of time, many of the people came back to the faith, the ones who had been baptized, but hadn't been catechized, and he brought a lot of people into the Church from among the black community who had not been baptized at all. "So, again, typical of Father Baker, he would try to reach out to try to solve the problem that he saw and he saw these black people who had no religious support and he tried to provide it," said Msgr. Burkard.
The man, himself, once stated, "Once I thought that the only thing that would please me was when I built the basilica. But this has pleased me more - to convert the Negros to Jesus Christ and I know it is a blessing."
In The Victorian Magazine, he wrote on behalf of the black population that, "it is high time that we took some notice of these gentle, humble, unobtrusive people, who up to now have been mostly proselytized by the sects. The Negro has a soul just as his white brother, but why is it that he has so long been neglected? The Negro convert to the Catholic faith is usually very true, devout and faithful."
Father Baker chose Christmas 1931 to invite a group of African-Americans standing in a soup line to become Catholic. He began instructing 30 in January, working with Father Thomas Galvin, CSsR.
In 1932, 500 were under their instruction in some form, having classes in the basement of St. John's Protectory, a facility that took care of older orphaned boys. Reaction from the new congregation was positive because Father Baker treated them with respect and had always been kind to them in the past. They met an hour a day, six days a week for three months.
After passing a 35-question test, candidates could be baptized. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1932, Father Baker baptized 10 converts. By May 12, 98 had been baptized. By the end of the year, they had 333 baptisms, 291 First Communions, and 204 confirmations. By June 9, 1935, 698 were baptized, and seven marriages had been celebrated.
After seeing blacks being harassed by police and arrested as vagrants, Father Baker rented two apartment buildings to house them.
Queen of All Saints merged with St. Anthony Parish in Lackawanna in 1998. Sadly, there are no monuments the size of OLV Basilica to remind people of the work Father Baker has done for the black community.