This coming February 6th and 7th will be two of the most important days in the history of the Marquette Diocese. For years, efforts have been made to achieve the canonization of Bishop Frederic Baraga, affectionately known as “the Snowshoe Priest,” as a saint of the Catholic Church.
The Cause for Baraga’s sainthood, which the diocese has been supporting for more than half a century, may or may not make significant progress on February 7th. On that date, the Cardinal members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will hold a formal discussion of Bishop Baraga’s heroic virtue, conduct a vote, and make their recommendation to the Holy Father regarding whether Bishop Baraga truly exhibited heroic virtue in his life and is therefore worthy of the title of “Venerable.” If the vote is positive, public veneration of him may take place, and his earthly remains, now in the bishops’ tomb in St. Peter’s Cathedral will be moved to a more prominent location for veneration of the faithful.
Current bishop of the diocese, Alexander Sample, has designated February 6th as a day of prayer and penance for the success of this effort.
If Bishop Baraga does receive the title of Venerable, the next step toward canonization will be for him to be beatified and granted the title “Blessed.” Part of the requirement to achieve “Blessed” status is proof of a miracle, which can occur through the intercession of the prospective saint through the power of prayer. An alleged miracle has occurred and a formal diocesan investigation occurred in July 2010. The Church is currently waiting to have the miracle recognized by the Congregation for Causes of Saints. Once Baraga is beatified, the next step would finally be canonization.
While we await the Vatican’s decision, the people of Upper Michigan already know that Bishop Baraga was a man of God who served the Native Americans and early settlers of Upper Michigan for three decades, snowshoeing and walking across the entire Upper Peninsula, as well as Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota, and Lower Michigan. His impact and his memory will never be forgotten here.
Bishop Baraga’s strength, courage, endurance, humility, and love have always been an inspiration to me, so much that I could not resist in my novel Iron Pioneers to depict him and suggest that he may have been responsible for working a miracle, or rather, having God work a miracle through him. Following is a scene from Iron Pioneers: The Marquette Trilogy, Book One, which takes place when Molly attends Bishop Baraga’s funeral and thinks back to a meeting she had with the bishop:
Molly entered the somber cathedral, now completed and functioning for two years. She clutched Kathy to her, glad to be inside the warmth of the church lit by candles to dispel the gloom of the blizzard raging outside. She felt privileged to attend the saintly bishop’s funeral mass, and when she saw his coffin, she replayed in her mind the day of her miracle, the day she was convinced Baraga was a living saint. It had happened a few months earlier, not long after Kathy’s birth had relieved some of the pain of Fritz’s loss. Molly had found it hard to understand why God had taken Fritz from her, but He had sent her someone equally precious in her long awaited little girl. Then one cold autumn day, Kathy had contracted pneumonia, and Molly was terrified. That day was the worst in her relationship with God; she had never dared be angry with Him before. But even in her anger, she struggled to keep her faith and pray.
That same evening Kathy’s pneumonia had turned into a dangerous fever. Although Molly could scarcely afford the expense, she had sent Karl for the doctor. Kathy’s fever raged for two seemingly endless days. Finally, the doctor had admitted Molly should send for the priest to give last rites. But Molly had adamantly refused; she would not give up hope. And then, the thought of the priest had made her think of the bishop. Ignoring the doctor’s protests, she had quickly bundled Kathy up in a blanket, then run through an October rainstorm to the church rectory.
When the housekeeper opened the door, Molly demanded to see the bishop; the housekeeper replied he was in a meeting with the Ursuline nuns who had recently started a Catholic school in Marquette; could Molly possibly return in the afternoon?
“No, I can’t. It might be too late then,” Molly had cried.
“I cannot disturb His Excellency,” said the overly dutiful housekeeper.
“Please. My little girl is so sick with a fever. I need the bishop to pray over her. I can’t bear to lose her. Only he can save her. You don’t understand. My husband is dead, and I waited so many years for this child. I’ll never have another. Please.”
Molly sobbed as she spoke, and the housekeeper had pitied her, but she also feared Molly’s cries would disturb the bishop.
But His Excellency had heard the disturbance and stepped out to the doorway.
“What’s the matter?” he had asked, although he need not have; he clearly saw a wretched mother clutching the child she loved better than herself.
“Your Excellency, I tried to tell her to come back later,” the housekeeper had apologized, but the Lord’s servant calmly dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
“Molly, your little girl is ill,” Bishop Baraga had said. Molly had never spoken to His Excellency before, save a few times when he gave her communion at Mass. She had not realized he knew her name. Overcome with fear, she heard herself babbling in desperation.
“Yes. Oh please. She has a fever. The doctor said I should have a priest give last rites, but I can’t. I can’t bear to lose her. Please, if you pray over her, maybe—”
The words had scarcely left her mouth before Baraga had taken Kathy in his arms.
“The doctor has given up hope?”
“Yes, he’s attended her for two days and says he can do nothing. But I thought—if you prayed—God would hear your prayer and heal her.”
“You have great faith,” Baraga had said, placing his hand on Kathy’s forehead to feel it burn like hellfire. “Let us pray, Molly.”
She had bowed her head while Baraga whispered, “Lord God, we pray you to heal this child. Cure her sickness that she may grow up like her mother, a faithful servant who does Your will.”
He had then spoken several sentences in Latin. Molly had not understood the words, but she was comforted merely by his gentle voice, his kindness, and the sacred language.
“Now go home and care for her, but remember her soul is saved, and that is what matters most. God bless you.”
Molly had then felt a bit let down, even as the bishop placed the child back into her arms and made the sign of the cross over her. She had muttered, “Thank you” and turned to leave.
Then Kathy had let out a cry.
“She hasn’t cried in two days!” Molly had said as she felt Kathy’s forehead, now soaked with sweat. “The fever has broken! Thank you, Your Excellency.”
“Thank God, Molly. I have done nothing. He must have some great plan for her to heal her so rapidly. Perhaps someday she will be a loving mother like you and bring many servants to the Lord.”
Molly had scarcely heard these prophetic words; she had only had eyes then for her child.
“Thank you,” she had repeated.
“Go home now and keep her warm. Do you have medicine for her?”
“Yes, the doctor has helped with that.”
“Very good,” the bishop had replied and bowed to dismiss her.
She had rushed home to share the miraculous news with Karl. She found him seated with the doctor, both still surprised by her hasty, unexplained departure.
“The fever broke!” she told them.
“Impossible, so suddenly,” muttered the doctor, placing his hand on Kathy’s forehead. He found it cool and drenched with sweat. “Why, she’s breathing regularly now and the color is returning to her cheeks.”
“It’s a miracle,” Molly had said.
The doctor was not a Catholic, but an Episcopalian. More so, he considered himself a man of science. “Often it is at the most critical moment these fevers turn. Perhaps taking her out in the cold air made the sudden difference.”
“It was a miracle,” Molly repeated.
“It doesn’t matter so long as she is better,” smiled the doctor, collecting his bag. “I’ll stop by tomorrow to check on her again.”
It had been a miracle. Molly refused to believe otherwise. Now months later, she knelt in a pew waiting for Bishop Baraga’s funeral to begin. She wondered why God had not prolonged his servant’s life longer, that more souls might come to Him. Then Molly remembered the Bishop’s words that many might come to the faith through Kathy. Perhaps Bishop Baraga had served his purpose on earth and now was rewarded, and it was left to those, like her, whose lives he had touched to win souls for the Church.