This Bishop Baraga statue pays tribute to a priest and bishop who ministered in upper Michigan. Courtesy Photo Bishop Baraga Association, Marquette, Michigan

Meet Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga

Known as the ‘Snowshoe Priest,’ he served the Ottawa Indians and settlers of upper Michigan

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In May 1831 the Catholic missionary Father Frederic Baraga arrived at L’Arbre Croche (now Harbor Springs), Michigan, where there existed a Catholic mission and an Ottawa Indian settlement with about 650 Indians. Father Baraga would be the new priest at the mission, and the Indians greeted him with joy and reverence.

Upon his arrival, he wrote, “Happy day which placed one among the Indians with whom I will now remain uninterruptedly to the last breath of my life, if such be the holy will of God” (Chrysostomus Verwyst, OFM, “Life and Labors of Right Rev. Frederic Baraga,” M.H. Wiltzius and Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1900).

Indeed, Baraga spent the next 37 years, until his death, evangelizing the American Indians in the Upper Midwest of the United States. This was the assignment — a missionary to the Indians — he had sought since he became a priest seven years earlier. While there were and would be hundreds of Catholic missionaries to the Americas, few experienced more hardships from their natural surroundings than did Father Baraga.

Born in 1797 at Carniola, Slovenia (in the Austrian Empire), Baraga was part of a well-to-do family which saw him become a lawyer, a priest, a priest-missionary and a Catholic bishop. A man of letters and intelligence, he could speak six languages. After earning a law degree, he chose to become a priest and was ordained in 1823.

He expressed the desire to go to America as a missionary and quickly responded to such a call from Bishop Edward Fenwick from the diocese of Cincinnati. Once he received permission from both his local bishop and Bishop Fenwick, Father Baraga journeyed to Cincinnati, arriving in January 1831. Here he began to learn the basics of the languages and about the people to whom he would evangelize, the Ottawa and Chippewa Indian communities.

He spent two years at L’Arbre Croche, throwing himself into his missionary duties and immediately developing a special affinity with the Native Americans. The Indians in turn were hospitable, friendly and responsive to his efforts to teach and care for their spiritual welfare.

During this assignment, Father Baraga baptized nearly 500 Indians. Many lived in encampments outside the mission and they would often seek out Father Baraga, inviting him to come to evangelize to their community. He went without hesitation to these small, isolated locations, which might be hundreds of miles apart.

Baraga was doing exactly what he wanted, but he recognized early on that while the harvest was great, the laborers were few. As there were only two or three Catholic priests in this great landmass, he often asked Indians or white settlers already converted to Christianity to assist in teaching others until he could return to that particular encampment.

Right Person, Right Time

After helping build a church at one of the many locations he visited, Baraga experienced a deep sense of emotion: “The thought that in this wild spot, in the midst of the ancient forest, where but yesterday only the cries of the wild children of nature resounded, and idolatrous sacrifices were offered to the evil spirits — that on this spot now stood a temple of the living God, in which the unspotted Lamb of God was offered to the Holy Father — this thought seized me so mightily, that I wept tears of the deepest emotion, and could find no words to offer thanks to God” (Rev. Antoine I. Rezek, “History of the Diocese of Sault Ste Marie and Marquette,” Vol. 1, Houghton, Michigan, 1906).

Guided by the Holy Spirit, he was bringing the divine words of salvation to a people thousands of miles from his homeland and doing so with complete devotion despite the terrain, distances, weather, language and cultural difficulties. Our God raises people at the right time, in the right place to fulfill his will; such a person was Father Frederic Baraga.

It was in the 1830s that Baraga began to compose and eventually publish dictionaries and grammatical books translating the Indian languages into German, English, French and more. His efforts extended to prayer books, catechisms, hymnals; some of these invaluable publications remain in use.

Harsh Conditions

Father Baraga’s parishioners were spread out over the northern part of what today includes the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. This was a desolate and dangerous country, inhabited by mostly Native Americans and a few European immigrants. There were almost no roads and the primary mode of transportation was to either walk or canoe (later there would be boat transportation). In the winter, the options were reduced to walking with snowshoes, which was very difficult. Baraga would use snowshoes so often that he became known as the snowshoe priest.

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The Travels of Bishop Baraga

 Many of Bishop Baraga’s arduous and long journeys took place in winter: “These winter journeys I find somewhat difficult now, for in the first place I am become unaccustomed to them, and secondly on account of my age, for next February, if I live, I shall be in my sixty-third year. At that age, especially if a person in former years suffered hardships, he is already a little stiff and feels the cold. Walking during the day goes tolerably well, but when one is obliged to camp out in the open air at night in the woods in the northern climate it is unpleasant.

“By reason of the tiresome walking on snow-shoes over hills and through valleys a person is sweating all day, notwithstanding the cold, so one’s underclothes become wet. Then when he stands still in the evening, he soon feels terribly cold and begins to tremble as if he had the fever. If I could arrive at some house every evening on these winter journeys, traveling would not be so hard, but in this desolate country a man has often to walk several days before seeing a single house.”

— Chrysostomus Verwyt, OFM, “Life and Labors of Right Rev. Frederic Baraga

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“When a person must walk upon snowshoes all day long, and that for many days in succession, especially in these trackless North American forests, he cannot travel without extreme fatigue and almost total exhaustion,” he once wrote in a letter. There were mostly no places to spend the night when traveling, so nightfall was passed in the open and, in the winter, that meant being covered with snow. “But all these hardships the missionary joyfully endures if thereby he can, through God’s help and grace, save even but one soul” (“Life and Labors of Right Rev. Frederic Baraga”).

The fervor most Indians showed toward Christianity made up for the harsh weather conditions and severe lack of human comfort. Father Baraga never let the vast distances of the land or weather stop him from reaching out to those in need. A story is told that one year during winter Father Baraga became aware of a young Indian girl dying at a site some 50 miles away. He put on his snowshoes and walked the distance to the girl and baptized her.

New Assignments, New Missions

In 1833 Baraga relocated to Grand River (now Grand Rapids), Michigan. There he found widespread alcoholism among the Indians brought on by the whiskey sold by white fur traders. Baraga took offense in such a strong way that the white fur traders turned against him and encouraged the Indians to do the same.

Despite this difficulty, Baraga established a new mission at Grand River, oversaw the building of a church and brought hundreds of Indians to Jesus Christ. With the arrival of another Catholic priest in 1835, he was able to move to La Pointe, Wisconsin, where he was greatly successful in ministering to the Chippewa tribe.

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Bishop Frederic

Baraga was declared “Venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI on May 10, 2012, during a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “To be declared Venerable, a positio of Bishop Baraga’s life was thoroughly studied by historic and theological consultors to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A positio is a written history of the potential saint’s life and work, as well as a summary of the person’s virtues. After the consultors gave a positive review of the record, the congregation studied it and gave it an affirmative vote. It was then up to the pope to declare Bishop Baraga Venerable,” according to an article in the May 18, 2012, issue of The U.P. Catholic. — for more visit bishopbaraga.org

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He stayed at La Pointe, which was 740 miles from Detroit, for eight years, catechizing and baptizing 1,000 Native Americans. Wherever the snowshoe priest went, he improved the livelihood of the Native Americans. He loved and was loved in return by these people he considered not only his sheep but his friends.

Father Baraga went next to L’ Anse, Michigan, where, in 1843, he began another mission. For the next several years, he was the only Catholic priest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The discovery of new veins of copper and iron brought European Catholic immigrants to Michigan, particularly to the Keweenaw Peninsula mostly north of L’ Anse. Father Baraga included these immigrants in his ministry and his mastery of German and French language served him well as he heard confessions, celebrated Mass and baptized children. He attempted to visit these growing locations at least three times a year until another priest was available.

It was at L’ Anse that Father Baraga crossed paths with Rev. John Pitezel, a Methodist missionary. In his book, “Lights and Shadows of Missionary Life” (Walden & Stowe, Cincinnati, 1882), Pitezel wrote: “Rev. Frederick Baraga was the resident priest. … Temperate in his habits, devout and dignified in his private and ministerial bearing, he was universally respected by the Indians and mining communities and affectionately loved by those in closer fellowship.”

Bishop Baraga

In 1853 the northern peninsula of Michigan was separated from the Diocese of Detroit and identified as an apostolic vicariate. Father Baraga was named as bishop with his episcopal see at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

This apostolic vicariate, which became a diocese in 1857, encompassed more than 80,000 square miles. It included all of Michigan’s northern peninsula, parts of the southern peninsula, northern Wisconsin, the north shore of Lake Superior, and, for a time, even areas of southern Canada. At that time, there were an estimated 20,000 Catholics scattered throughout this vast diocese. The location of Sault Ste. Marie became too distant from the rest of the diocese, so, in 1865, it was moved to Marquette, Michigan, and became known as the Diocese of Marquette. As bishop, between 1853 and 1868, Baraga oversaw the number of priests grow from five to 18 and the number of churches increase from six to 32.

It was at Marquette, on Jan. 19, 1868, that Bishop Baraga died as a result of a stroke. He was buried beneath the Cathedral of St. Peter. In the manner of the apostles, he had been gifted by God with the wisdom and courage necessary to bring thousands of people to Christ.

His legacy is identified by those he served: counties, schools, post offices, roads, shrines, parks, bridges and more bear his name. Records show that he baptized more than 25,000 people, the majority Native Americans he so loved.

On May 12, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI, confirmed that Bishop Baraga had lived a life of heroic virtue and named him Venerable. The pursuit of elevating him to the altar of sainthood, the greatest gift the Church can offer, is being actively pursued. 

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

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The Catholic Missionary

Father Baraga described the Catholic missionary: “The Catholic missionary, no matter where he may be, is everywhere at home. If he is overtaken by night, in an Indian hut, and does not come home, neither his wife nor children are distressed on account of it. He gratefully partakes of their own meals and looks for nothing better. He lies down on a mat for rest and thanks his Savior that he is so provided for. He does not waste a good half of his precious time in enjoying the pleasure of life, nor in the fulfillment of home obligations, or the care of an ever-increasing family but through his simple and self–sacrificing mode of life he gains access to the hearts of the savages, and then their obedience to the requirements of the Roman Catholic Church is easily gained. Doctrines taught by visible signs are easier understood by simple people than moral expressions, no matter in what form the words may be clothed.” (Rev. Antoine I. Rezek, “History of the Diocese of Sault Ste Marie and Marquette,” Vol. 1., Houghton, Michigan, 1906)

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