Flashback Friday: Bishop Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest

A village and a county bear his name. One massive statue of him perches on a rocky cliff overlooking Keweenaw Bay near L’Anse; another, more modest in size, lifts a hand in benediction before the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids, near one of his early missions in the state. Both metaphorically and literally, Bishop Frederic Baraga looms large in Michigan, and nowhere is his influence more apparent than in the Upper Peninsula.

Painting of BaragaIrenaeus Frederic Baraga was born to a family of means in northwestern Slovenia in 1797. As a boy, he quickly mastered languages; as a young man, he flourished in his law studies at the University of Vienna. Yet a career as a lawyer did not satisfy Baraga, who felt called instead to enter the seminary and prepare for service as a priest. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1823 at the age of twenty-six. Initially in service to what is now the Archdiocese of Ljubljana, Baraga later elected to pursue missionary work abroad and departed for North America. His arrival on December 31, 1830 was the beginning of nearly four decades of dedication to the peoples of the Great Lakes region, both indigenous and transplanted.

Baraga’s talent for linguistics served him well in his new role. In addition to learning to communicate with the Ottawa nation for his earliest North American missions, he studied the Ojibwa language intensely and acquired a mastery of it, as exhibited in his later publication of a grammar and a dictionary. Missionary labors required not only mental acuity but physical fortitude: Baraga traveled frequently over long distances and in challenging weather, taking lengthy journeys by canoe and punishing voyages on snowshoes to reach remote villages–hence his “Snowshoe Priest” moniker. The development of the copper mining industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula meant that Baraga was called upon to serve an increasingly diverse community of Catholics, including not only the native peoples dear to his heart but Irish, German, and other immigrants who relied on his sacramental service.

It would be challenging in this space to do any justice to the years that Baraga devoted to providing pastoral care across the Upper Great Lakes, let alone his efforts to recruit priests from abroad to share in his labors. His work certainly did not go unnoticed in his time, however. In June 1852, Baraga received word that he was to be considered for elevation to bishop responsible for the Upper Peninsula. It seems, from transcriptions of his diary, that Baraga dreaded the possibility and found the long wait to hear whether he would be confirmed agonizing. In June 1853, he wrote, “Today it is already a year since I have heard it for the first time: but I am not further ahead than I was then. Stop!” When Baraga finally was told unequivocally that he would be appointed bishop in October 1853, he noted in his diary, “Alas, it has proven to be certain.” A heavy burden lay on Baraga’s shoulders from then on. Any notes that he made in his diary on the anniversary of his consecration as bishop betrayed his melancholy: “Today is the 3rd anniversary of my consecration,” he wrote in 1856. “A very sad day. I could almost say, ‘May gloom and deep shadow claim it for their own, clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.’” In 1858, Baraga observed “the fifth anniversary of my consecration. Sad… The past saddens me; the present torments me; the future frightens me.”

In spite of the grief that Baraga endured in his role as bishop, he resolved to serve as he had always served: devotedly and devoutly. During his time as the Catholic shepherd of the Upper Peninsula, the diocese established a number of parishes and built churches to serve the burgeoning Catholic population. In the Copper Country, these churches included the first St. Ignatius Loyola Church, dedicated by Baraga in 1859, and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, built on land that Baraga had purchased in 1853 and 1854. Holy Redeemer remains in service to the Catholics of Keweenaw County on a seasonal basis to this day.

White church building in field
Holy Redeemer parish in Eagle Harbor, as captured in August 1916 by photographer J.T. Reeder.

With his new responsibilities also came the opportunity to create greater good for the causes about which Bishop Baraga was most passionate. In 1843, newly arrived in the Lake Superior region, he had established a mission on the west side of Keweenaw Bay. Baraga named the settlement Assinins in honor of the first Ojibwa man he baptized there, and here he wrote his seminal dictionary and grammar of the local language. As bishop, Assinins was plainly never far from Baraga’s mind. In 1860, he directed the construction of an orphanage and school there; the building underwent an expansion in 1866. Around this time, to ensure that the native peoples retained their ancestral property, Bishop Baraga deeded the land to Chief Assinins and the other Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa.

As long as his health permitted, the bishop also kept up the punishing pace of travel that had characterized his early missionary years. In 1860 alone, he journeyed from Sault Ste. Marie to the Copper Country, out to La Pointe and Superior, Wisconsin, back through Ontonagon, east to the Straits of Mackinac, and down to the area of Traverse City. From there, he made another loop, traveling back to Wisconsin and then taking an extended sojourn through towns like Houghton, Hancock, and Eagle River. He finally passed through Negaunee and Marquette before settling down for four months at Sault Ste. Marie. The next year, he began again. By this time, Baraga was already sixty-three years old.

Sadly, these days of wandering in service of the Catholic Church and her people came to a sudden halt in 1866. After making another punishing trip to Baltimore for a council meeting in October, Baraga suffered at least one stroke and a debilitating fall. For a time, it seemed that the bishop’s fate was to die far from his diocese; he did not seem strong enough for the return voyage. But anyone who knew Frederic Baraga knew that he was a man of determination: when he set his mind on a goal, he could not be swayed. In his infirmity, that aim became a return to the Upper Peninsula, to fulfill in whatever way he might his pastoral responsibilities, and to be near to the native peoples who had been dear to him for so long. Finally, a priest who had traveled with Baraga acquiesced, and with great difficulty the bishop made his final journey to Marquette. On January 19, 1868, he died in his home. In his last days, Baraga had given all the money he had to an Ojibwa Catholic school.

Man standing on giant snowshoe
One of the massive snowshoes for the Baraga statue in the sculptor’s workshop, 1971.

The Snowshoe Priest never knew Houghton as the site of a mining school or a prominent technological university; he did not know that one day he would be the subject of intense interest throughout the Upper Peninsula and, indeed, the world. Yet Michigan Tech gets to share in Baraga’s legacy. Among collections documenting various tributes to him in the local area–including newspaper articles on the installation of his statue at the foot of Keweenaw Bay in 1972–the Michigan Tech Archives also holds an 1853 letter written to Peter (Pierre) Crebassa, a resident of the L’Anse area, in Bishop Baraga’s own hand. Penned a matter of days before he received word of his confirmation as bishop, the letter is a relic of Baraga’s life and one of the oldest archival items held at the university. In the archives, as in life, Baraga is exemplary.

More information about the Peter Crebassa Collection (MS-034), of which the Baraga letter is a part, may be found in the collection finding aid (PDF)

The best collection of materials pertaining to the life of Frederic Baraga is held by the Baraga Educational Center, a museum and outreach point of the Bishop Baraga Association in Marquette.


One comment on “Flashback Friday: Bishop Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest”

  • Nancy Haun
    December 21, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    Thank you. As president of the Bishop Baraga Foundation-we are always pleased when any mention of Venerable Baraga is published. WE have many visitors at the Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest located on the Red Rocks at the head of Keweenaw Bay and look forward to the day that Venerable Baraga becomes Saint Baraga! All are welcome to visit the statue on the Red Rocks which is open 24/7 365 days of the year! Nancy Haun, Pres. BBF

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