August 1, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Frederic Baraga

John F. Fink(Tenth in a series of columns)

Father Frederic Baraga was another missionary to the American Indians, this time to the Chippewas and Ottawas.

He was born in what is now Slovenia in 1797, was ordained a priest and served in a couple of parishes until 1830. That is when the Leopardine Foundation was searching for missionaries to send to North America. Father Baraga applied, and was accepted by Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati was still a diocese rather than an archdiocese then, but it was large. Bishop Fenwick assigned Father Baraga to the northwest part of the diocese, 80,000 square miles that included Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Father Baraga established missions in various Indian villages in this vast area. He traveled to the missions by foot, horseback or canoe most of the year, but in the winter it was by snowshoes.

In a letter to his bishop, he wrote: “In winter a person cannot travel otherwise than on foot. As the snow is generally deep and there are no traveled roads, the only way to travel is on snowshoes. These snowshoes are from four to five feet long and one foot wide and are tied to one’s feet. With them, a man can travel even in the deepest snow without sinking in very much. But this style of walking is very tiresome, especially for Europeans, who are not accustomed to it.”

He also had to sleep in forests or out in the open because, as he wrote, “A man may travel four or five days in this extensive and thinly settled country before coming to another Indian settlement.” He wrote that an Indian guide who accompanied him “sleeps the whole night as if he were in a featherbed.”

Father Baraga was named the first Bishop of Sault St. Marie, Mich., in 1853. The diocese was relocated to Marquette in 1866 because of its more central location.

Bishop Baraga spoke and wrote Slovenian, French, German, English and Chippewa. After becoming bishop, he wrote his first pastoral letter in Chippewa.

He was a prolific writer so he couldn’t have been traveling all the time. He wrote seven prayerbooks in Slovenian and 20 books in English on religious topics as well as a sociological description of the Indian tribes he knew. He also wrote a dictionary and grammar of the Chippewa language, plus a catechism and hymnal. His diaries totaled three volumes.

He was also known for his sanctity. He rose each morning at 4 a.m. to spend three hours in prayer.

Besides ministering to the Indians, Bishop Baraga was also their champion, objecting to government authorities about the policy of removing the Indians from their native lands and selling alcohol to them. He prayed for justice for the Indians as well as peace among them.

Bishop Baraga attended the Council of Baltimore in 1866. While there, he suffered a stroke. He asked the priest who accompanied him to take him back to his wilderness diocese so he could die there. He lived another 16 months before his death in 1868. †

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