Victory in Lackawanna
by Joel Pidel, appearing in Volume 43
The story of Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in Lackawanna, New York, is one that, like most historic Catholic churches, is intertwined as much with the legacy of a person as with an event that reverberates throughout Church history. In this constellated tradition, the Battle of Lepanto prefigures in the history of Lackawanna within a narrative arc centered on the life of Monsignor Nelson Baker and his devotion to Our Lady of Victory.
Few events in the annals of Church history are as legendary or momentous as the victory of the united Holy League against the substantially larger forces of the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in A.D. 1571. On the days surrounding that decisive battle, Christian faithful around the world thronged to their churches at the behest of Pope Saint Pius V to recite the holy rosary and implore the aid of the Blessed Mother. When word reached the pope of the Christian triumph, he summarily declared a commemorative feast day in honor of Our Lady of Victory, to whom he attributed the cause of their military success.
While Pope Gregory XIII later changed the Feast of Our Lady of Victory to the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, devotion to the Blessed Mother under the titular patronage of Our Lady of Victory continued. Churches dedicated to this patroness soon sprang up throughout Europe and further abroad.
Just over 300 years later, the echoes of this seminal event would find efficacious resonance in a sickly seminarian named Nelson Baker, who was making pilgrimage to perhaps the most famous of all the eponymously dedicated churches and the site of many attributed miracles: L’Église Notre-Dame des Victoires in Paris. It was here that the future Father Baker would have a profound spiritual experience and make an act of supreme devotion that would define his life, thenceforth entrusting himself, his priestly vocation, and all of his endeavors to the protection of—and for the honor of—Our Lady of Victory.
Born on February 16, 1842, Nelson Baker had served in the New York State Militia during the Civil War before operating a successful feed and grain business. He left behind this professional life in order to enter Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in 1869. Following his aforesaid pilgrimage experience in Paris during a sojourn to Rome, Nelson Baker returned to be ordained in the diocese of Buffalo in 1876. Afterward he briefly served as a priest at Saint Joseph Cathedral. His first assignment was to Saint Patrick Church in Limestone Hill, New York, followed by a short stint at Saint Mary Church in Corning, New York, before returning to Limestone Hill where he would remain thereafter.
The parish of Saint Patrick consisted of the church, Saint Joseph’s Orphanage, and Saint John’s Protectory for abandoned and troubled children. Father Baker set to work extending, transforming, and adding to these charitable works. He founded a maternity hospital and home for infant care; an elementary school and later Our Lady of Victory Academy, as well as a trade school; and several small shrines and other mission churches and schools in the surrounding region.
Father Baker became known both locally in Buffalo and throughout western New York as much for his administrative acumen as for his zeal for souls and care for the poor, abandoned, and marginalized. From helping unwed mothers and abandoned children to impoverished African-Americans and striking workers, his life was responsive to the acute moral and social issues both of the time and of his community.
Word spread throughout the greater United States by word of mouth, through the publications he created, and by way of mail-order fundraising solicitations to subsidize his charitable endeavors. As a personal anecdote, the phrase “If you don’t behave, we’ll trade you in at Father Baker’s woods for a new little boy” was a joking threat not infrequently issuing from the lips of my mother who was raised in western New York.
Planning the Shrine
With his Lackawanna institutions on solid footing, Father Baker finally turned his attention to the realization of a great shrine in honor of his patroness. While he had envisioned such a project as early as 1906, both the increasing population and the recent damage to Saint Patrick Church caused by fire had created the impetus to pursue his final great devotional campaign. It bespeaks the energy and charisma of this parish priest—not to mention hopefulness—that he began this undertaking at the youthful age of 79, telling his benefactors:
“The time had come when our Blessed Lord thought the humble and lowly shrine dedicated to his Blessed Mother should give way to a temple more worthy, as far as human beings could make it worthy, of his own dear mother; a shrine that would give expression of the sincere and devout love of the devoted lovers of Mary, to whom they had become so devoted, and to whose generous heart they were so much indebted.”
In 1921, Baker turned to the services of the Cleveland-based architect Emile Uhlrich. It is perhaps fitting in the workings of providence that the architect retained by Father Baker was himself the very sort of person whom Father Baker had desired to serve in his charitable institutions.
Born in Epinal, France, on March 28, 1873, Uhlrich was orphaned while still young. He went on to attain his diploma from the Academy of Paris before entering the ateliers of Mssrs. Berger and Maistrasse to receive a Beaux-Arts architectural training. Within a couple of years, his training was interrupted by a further unnamed misfortune, and so he immigrated to the United States in 1894. He initially settled in Cincinnati before moving to Cleveland in 1898 to join in partnership with Godfrey Fugman.
Uhlrich became well known in the Midwest, particularly for his church architecture, but it was a project in Olean, New York, that would put this French architect on the radar of Father Baker.
In the summer of 1912, a priest from western New York named Edward Rengel visited several new churches and schools in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to gain ideas for a new church he was to have built for his parish in Olean, New York. Among the stops was the city of Steubenville, Ohio, where he most probably saw Saint Peter’s Church, recently completed in 1908, and perhaps also the Church of Saint Mary of the Assumption (now a minor basilica), completed in 1909 in nearby Marietta, Ohio. This deduction is based on the fact that the architect chosen by Father Rengel for the new Church of Saint Mary of the Angels in Olean was the author of the aforementioned churches—Emile Uhlrich of Cleveland, Ohio.
A Gothic revival church revealing a number of other stylistic influences, Saint Mary of the Angels was formally opened and blessed by one Monsignor Nelson Baker on September 26, 1915, though it was only finally completed in 1917. Indeed, at a future reception following the consecration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, Father Baker would publicly credit Father Rengel for bringing Uhlrich to his attention.
The match between Father Baker and Emile Uhlrich proved well-made. In Uhlrich, Father Baker found an architect not only with the right personality, professional competence, and shared vision, but one whose Beaux-Arts training would allow him to realize “a shrine that will in beauty, loveliness and grandeur, be worthy… to be consecrated to the august Mother of God under the title of titles, Our Blessed Lady of Victory.” And in Father Baker, Uhlrich found a client whose vision and financial wherewithal matched his own abilities to design it.
If the final results are any measure, Father Baker’s trust in Uhlrich was not misplaced, and his letters attest to the amicable relationship they enjoyed despite any briefly frustrating episodes. In fact, Father Baker’s chief concern was that Uhlrich, filled with ideas from his time abroad in France and Italy, design something so amazing as to outstrip his own fundraising abilities. But Father Baker proceeded in the same spirit that has led many hope-filled religious to remark when undertaking such projects: “God has lots of money—and he loves to spend it on his mother.” He would emerge from the project entirely debt-free.
In need of an experienced and reliable contractor to match the abilities of Uhlrich, Father Baker was fortunate to have one such among his own parishioners. Edward S. Jordan had previously worked with Father Baker on several building projects at the parish, and he quickly earned the trust of Uhlrich as well. Even so, no vision or design is capable of being realized to its full potential without an equally talented team of tradesmen, craftsmen, and artisans.
Here as well, Father Baker’s selections were inspired. Chief among these was Gonippo Raggi from Saint Michael’s Royal Art Academy in Rome. Raggi’s task was to give artistic direction to the shrine’s interior by turning the plaster surfaces into a vast painting and iconographic program for murals, stenciling, and painted polychrome.
In addition, much of the requisite skilled labor was found locally in companies such as the Memorial Art Company of Buffalo (granite foundation), Daprato Statuary Company (interior statues), Machwirth Brothers (copper dome and angels), Otto Fr. Andrle Stained Glass and Art Institute (stained glass windows), Lackawanna Bridge Works (structural steel), and the Danforth Company (HVAC).
Other work was best contracted to suppliers both stateside and abroad, such as the Georgia Marble Company (exterior marble), Cleveland Plastering Company (interior figural and run plasterwork), Benzinger Marble Company (Stations of the Cross, altar, statuary), and the Tonetti Brothers Marble Company (other interior marble).
“I am so resplendent in my creation that in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.”
–Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (1912)
Construction on the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory began in August of 1921 with the blessing and laying of the cornerstone by Bishop William Turner of Buffalo. It would be completed five years later on May 25, 1926. This corresponds nearly concurrently with the building of another famous national Marian shrine from 1920-1925: the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., by the firm Maginnis and Walsh.
Built on the same site as the former Saint Patrick Church, Our Lady of Victory began ahead of both fundraising and final designs from Uhlrich. Such “faith the size of a mustard seed” was a hallmark of Father Baker’s endeavors and the shrine itself was no exception. One of the most storied decisions evincing this confidence was Father Baker’s contract with the Georgia Marble Company. He purchased all of the exterior marble ahead of securing funds for the rest of the project—or even a final budget being determined—thus heralding his intention to use all financial means at his disposal in honor of his patroness.
The striking exterior of the basilica eludes any neat stylistic classification. Though it might loosely be described as neo-Baroque or neo-Renaissance, the church exhibits a certain stylistic eclecticism of varying ethnic permutation like many of Uhlrich’s designs.
Rising from a gray granite base, Our Lady of Victory is cloaked in a raiment of white Georgia marble and copper-clad canopies over an independent steel frame. Her twin-towered façade is flanked by curvilinear Doric colonnades embracing a landscaped forecourt in an act of maternal solicitude. Atop the terminating pavilions of these colonnades are marble sculpture groupings of children protected by guardian angels, one side led by a nun and the other by Father Baker.
On the façade rises a deeply arched aedicule pushing into a scrolled tympanum. Here, a twelve-foot-tall statue of Our Lady of Victory and her son adored by angels is arranged on a pedestal in its apex, while a projecting, tempietto-like Doric portico emerges from the aedicule below this sculptural composition. It is worth noting that the original 165-foot marble spires of the frontal towers designed by Uhlrich were damaged by a lightning strike in 1941 and the top levels were removed.
Above the heart of the church, an enormous lantern-topped copper dome measuring 251 feet in circumference (at the time, second only to the United States Capitol dome) ascends from the crossing on a marble plinth and Doric-pilastered drum. It frames sixteen arched windows, all crowned in the attic above by a ring of candelabra-like finials. The drum is punctuated at the ordinal points by colossal, eighteen-foot-tall trumpeting angels in copper verdigris that surmount columnar pedestals.
Together these features delineate the basilica’s distinctive silhouette that pierces the heavens above Lackawanna. They analogize in their architectural forms both the intercession beseeched of Our Lady of Victory and the victory acclaimed.
Stepping into the shrine, the white marble and oxidized copper of the exterior give way to a dazzling polychrome of marble, stained glass, murals, bronze-work with gilt, and painted plaster. There are truly few churches in the United States that can boast such a sumptuous artistic and architectural ensemble, where every surface from floor to ceiling has received such resplendent decorative treatments of great artisanship over so vast a volume.
The nave is composed of five vertical bays subdivided into pilastered-lower and vaulted-upper registers. The lower register is delineated by major and minor orders, with large trabeated Corinthian pilasters that frame arched openings into the side aisles springing from engaged Doric pilasters. In the golden frieze of the major order, wrapping the interior of the basilica, can be read various titles honoring the Blessed Mother. Life-sized Stations of the Cross in white Italian marble set within Corinthian aedicules dominate the walls of the sail-vaulted side aisles, and inlaid marble paneling, stained glass windows, and decorative bronze grilles supply the background.
The upper register consists of a barrel vault divided by ribs sprung from the major Corinthian pilasters; these ribs frame arched stained-glass windows that depict the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. The vaulted fields feature painted scenes that depict Our Lady in five successive murals: Queen of the Patriarchs, Queen of the Apostles, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the Prophets, and Queen of the Martyrs.
The eastern and western transepts feature the same architectural motifs in the lower register to frame devotional chapels to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Joseph, respectively, each flanked by confessionals. Additionally, the eastern transept houses a side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, wherein is placed the tomb of Father Baker. Above and filling the arched transept end walls, rose windows are set within fields of painted murals depicting scenes from the life of the Holy Family—to the east the Journey of the Magi and the Nativity, and to the west the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt.
One of the less common aspects of the arrangement of the interior spaces, at least among Western churches, is the manner in which the nave meets the transept crossing under the dome. At the end of the fifth bay, the nave splays outward at a forty-five-degree angle towards the transepts, creating a sixth bay shaped as a triangular wedge in either side aisle of the nave. These in turn are matched across the transept arms at either side of the sanctuary, where a series of five ambulatory chapels circumscribes the periphery. While the triangular corners remain open for passage in plan and contain the remaining Stations, sculptural niches are recessed into the upper register in which reside pedestaled statues of the four evangelists.
These four splayed corners form the intercardinal structure from which springs the dome and which allows the width of the dome to exceed the width of the nave. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of this compositional feature is the ensuing view from the entrance. From the perspective of the axis of the nave, the dome seems to hover above the crossing because its structural extents are occluded.
The great crossing of Our Lady of Victories is schematically similar to that of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome where the dome slightly transcends the width of the nave by use of enormous canted corner piers implemented to similar effect. But here, Uhlrich’s crossing heightens the spatial drama by utilizing the entire depth of the side aisles for his chamfered corners. Its manner is more akin to that found at the Duomo of Florence, Italy, or at Sir Christopher Wren’s Cathedral of Saint Paul in London. Only a few years later, a local self-trained architect named Chester Oakley would make similar use of this spread-corner schema in his Church of the Blessed Trinity in Buffalo, New York, completed in 1927.
The dome above, some eighty feet across, is the crowning achievement of Gonippo Raggi’s artistic program. Divided into three tiers, the lower podium is wreathed with painted garlands, festoons, saints, and angels. The interstitial layer comprises a ring of sixteen stained-glass windows deeply cut into the vaulted canopy reminiscent of domes typically found in Eastern Catholic churches. The glorious spectacle reaches its climax as the painted heavens open to reveal a vision of the Assumption attended by a cloud of celestial witnesses.
The sanctuary culminates in a reredos of exquisite beauty. An open-scrolled canopy balanced on Solomonic columns of precious red Spanish marble rises from a white marble pedestal that frames the altar of sacrifice and a statue of Our Lady of Victory adored by angels. On the altar below emerges a round tabernacle and cross framed by angels holding aloft curving drapery. These compositional analogies not only reinforce each other but also serve to re-present and complete the architectural and liturgical pilgrimage begun at the exterior façade and carried through to its source and summit.
In sum, it will suffice to recall the words His Eminence Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York spoke at the dedicatory Mass:
“I know of no church like this, so beautiful, so uplifting, so glorious—I know of no other church like this, consecrated to the Charities of Christ, Our Lord. It is a monument to the Buffalo Diocese, the city of Lackawanna, to our great Lady of Victory and to a modern Apostle of Charity” —Father Baker.
Today, Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica remains a national monument and a visible testament to the faith and legacy of Father Baker. The shrine is currently celebrating the centennial anniversary of its construction from 2021 through 2026. A fifteen-million-dollar capital campaign is underway to fulfill both a restoration fund and a sustaining fund for the basilica, while a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Spaces was recently secured to begin overdue maintenance and repair work. A series of special events, concerts, and lectures are being hosted at the basilica in commemoration of its first 100 years as it seeks to renew and redouble its presence and outreach to the community of Lackawanna and beyond.
The basilica represents the high-water mark and crown jewel of Father Baker’s building activities dedicated to his vocational patroness, Our Lady of Victory. Father Baker’s social and spiritual legacy also continues unabated under the banner of OLV Charities and OLV Human Services which provide a range of services and ministries. In total, the OLV institutions stand as living witnesses to the many fruitful ways devotion to Our Lady of Victory changed not only the life of Father Baker but also all of those to whom he ministered under her patronage. Father Baker desired a shrine of surpassing beauty not only because it would appropriately honor his great patroness, but because beauty is the most fitting instrument of Our Lady to wound and conquer the human heart. And so it is with this in mind that we conclude with the following prayer of Father Baker:
O Victorious Lady, thou who has ever such powerful influence with thy Divine Son, in conquering the hardest of hearts, intercede for those for whom we pray, that their hearts being softened by the ways of Divine Grace, they may return to the unity of the true faith, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.