Another candidate for American sainthood is Slovenian-born missionary Frederic Baraga. His story among the First People reads like an adventure out of Indiana Jones.
He has the unique distinction of being strongly influenced by one saint, Clement Mary Hofbauer, while at university, and being himself a strong influence on another, John Nepomucene Neumann, who devoured the Ven. Baraga's diary and missionary accounts while studying in the seminary at Prague. This influence was the single most motivating factor in St. John Neumann’s decision to offer himself for missionary work in the United States.
|Assinins Baraga Center, MI|
From 1805-1813 Slovenia was taken from the Austrian Empire and occupied by the forces of Napoleon. In 1816, Frederic entered the University of Vienna where he took a degree in law. Gradually, during his student years, he became convinced that his vocation was to the priesthood. After graduating from the university he entered the diocesan seminary at Laibach in Slovenia, having signed off on his inheritance. Due to the political instability of the times, and the threat of renewed persecution, he was ordained after two years.
Bishop Edward Fenwick was delighted to welcome the promising young priest. His first assignment was to minister to the German Catholics in the area, while he immersed himself in the study of the Ottawa Indian language. His teacher, who was studying in the seminary there, was the son of an Ottawa chief. By May he was ready for his first mission. It was among the Ottawas at Arbre Croche, Michigan. Their own chief, Assiginak, had prepared the converts for baptism. While here, after perfecting his knowledge of the Ottawa tongue, Father Baraga composed a catechism and prayer book, the first in that language. He would also compose a grammar book and dictionary of the language, which took him twenty years to complete.
|Shannon Stirnweis, 1931|
|Jeff Gardner photo|
The Ottawas were a nomadic people. They lived by hunting and fishing and gathering sap and berries, which meant moving seasonally to where there was game. Seeing how they suffered during the winter for lack of food, Ven. Baraga built upon the work of previous missioners who had introduced them to new crops, and agricultural skills, which would nourish them through the long cold months. This stability led to a more flourishing and harmonious village life that helped fortify the family and enhance the education of the children and young adults.
Ven. Baraga's next Indian mission was among the Chippewas at La Pointe, Wisconsin. There he labored successfully for about eight years, baptizing 981 Indians and whites. In 1843 he founded the L'Anse Indian mission in Michigan, arriving there in October. For ten years he labored in this vast mission, being for many years the only Catholic priest in Upper Michigan. He attended not only to the Indians, but also to the whites of this vast territory. The discovery of iron and copper drew many German, French, and English-speaking Catholics to the Northern Peninsula of Michigan. Truly incredible are the hardships and labors of Ven. Baraga at this period of his life. On the 29th of July, 1853, the Northern Peninsula of Michigan was detached from the Diocese of Detroit and Ven. Baraga was appointed its first bishop.
Shortly after his elevation to the episcopal office Bishop Baraga issued two circulars to his people, one in Chippewa and the other in English. His jurisdiction extended not only to the whole Northern Peninsula of Michigan, but also to a large part of the Lower Peninsula, to Northern Wisconsin, and to the North Shore of Lake Superior. He labored in this vast extent of territory for fifteen years, traveling almost incessantly, from the opening to the close of navigation year after year. On the 23d of October, 1865, by Apostolic authority he transferred his See from Sault Ste. Marie to Marquette, where he died at the age of seventy years
One fact that is remarkable about Bishop Baraga is how much he traveled for 37 years his life.
No Indian missionary of modern times was more beloved and revered by both Indians and whites than Venerable Baraga . He loved his Indians with a warmhearted devotion which they reciprocated. Men of all positions in society, Catholics and non-Catholics, revered him as an ideal man, Christian, and bishop. Michigan has named after him one of her counties, several towns, and post offices, and his name has been given to one of the principal streets of Marquette. In his native country he is, if possible, even more popular than in America.