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Diocese Introduces Father Baker Curriculum

By Joyce Kryszak

Lackawanna, NY – Even beyond death, Father Nelson Baker will be helping children in Western New York. Lackawanna's Padre of the Poor - and candidate for sainthood - is the basis of a new educational program from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

In its quest to have Father Baker canonized, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has discovered a new educational mission. The Father Baker lessons are designed to teach children, from kindergarten to grade eight, about the legacy of a man who did so much for the poor steel town. A man who may one day be proclaimed a saint.

On one small corner in Lackawanna are the lasting monuments of Father Baker's work. The magnificent Our Lady of Victory Basilica, hospital, orphanage and schools. Standing inside one of the original classrooms of the OLV elementary school, Principal Sister Ellen O'Keefe tells what a special story the children here have to share with the world.

"Because of their knowledge of Father Baker, they will give that to their own children. This is something that has got to be passed on," Sister Ellen said. "To think that he is someone who walked right where they're walking, who was in the rooms that they're in, and maybe you put your foot right in the same footsteps as Father Baker -- that's a marvelous understanding we want to give them."

Ten-year-old Joseph Nowaczyk has been a student at OLV school since preschool. So, like most children from the region, Joseph is well acquanted with perhaps the most familiar part of Father Baker's reputation. The person who you could be sent to - if you were naughty.

"Mom and Dad would say they would take me to Father Baker when I was bad...but they never did," Joseph said.

It's a threat that generations of children throughout Western New York grew up with. But thanks to the Diocese's new Father Baker curriculum, students like Joseph are now learning much more about the priest who spent his life giving to and serving the poor - particularly the children who poverty often treats the most cruelly. The lessons integrate the values professed by Baker, such as generosity and faith, into a curriculum based on the New York state learning standards. Curriculum Director Daniel Grande helped design the program. But Grande says even he had a great deal to learn.

"I am grateful to have been asked to work on this project, because, you know, I didn't know anything about Father Baker. What I knew about Father Baker isn't what these children will grow up with," Grande said. "And that's the message we want to get out there."

Indeed, the message about Father Baker's selfless work has spread throughout the community. And recently, the Buffalo born son of a grocer, has gotten the attention of the the Vatican.

The Buffalo Diocese, and many others, call it a miracle. Vials of Baker's blood, buried with him in 1936, were found still liquified when the priest's body was moved to the Basilica in 1999. The discovery may qualify Baker for beatification - the first step toward being named a saint. Sister Ellen says it will be a long path to bring Baker to sanctification. But she hopes the children will continue the journey.

"I hope to be around for the beatification. I probably will not be around for the sanctification of this great man," she said. "But these children will be, and I want them to be as educated and as instilled in the works and the life of Father Baker, that I was as a child. And, unless they are told and reminded of the special life he had, it will be lost."

Last fall, the Father Baker curriculum was distributed to all 92 catholic elementary and junior high schools in the Buffalo diocese. The lesson plans will also be available to all religious education programs beginning in February. And is accessible to everyone on the Buffalo Diocese's web site.