Slovenian-American Bishop Frederic Baraga (1797–1868) spent much of his career as a Roman Catholic priest and missionary to Native American populations in the Upper Midwest and Canada. He baptized thousands of new converts to Christianity, but appreciated the traditions and customs of the Ojibwa and their cousins, the Ottawa Indians, and knew that much of their culture had likely been lost forever after contact with European settlers. Dubbed the "Snowshoe Priest" during his lifetime because he favored the indigenous footwear when traveling the long distances between communities, Baraga was a gifted linguist who compiled the first-ever Ojibway-English dictionary.
The future bishop was born June 29, 1797, as Irenej Friderik Baraga in the town of Dobrnič, Slovenia. At the time, this part of Slovenia—later one of the Yugoslavian federal republics—was known as the Austrian Dukedom of Carniola, and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Baraga was born at a castle called Mala vas , where his father, Johann Nepomuc Baraga, worked as an overseer. Baraga's family was not titled, but they were
Slovenia's strategic position between the Mediterranean and the Alps occasionally stirred geopolitical rivals, and turmoil flared up during Baraga's youth. Lower Carniola was occupied by French troops the year Baraga was born, and again in 1805 and 1806. In 1809 they reverted once more to French control when the area became part of the Illyrian Provinces of France. Because of this, Baraga learned both German and French as well as Slovenian during his youth. He entered Laibach's gymnasium—a school that offered a college preparatory curriculum—in 1809, and went on to the University of Vienna, from which he received his law degree in 1821.
Baraga had been raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and came to know a famous and influential cleric during his years in Vienna, Clemens Maria Hofbauer (1751–1820). Revered posthumously as the patron saint of Vienna, Hofbauer was known for his challenges to the Emperor, who oversaw the Church in Austria, and influenced Baraga's decision to forego a career in law and train for the priesthood instead. Breaking off an engagement to the daughter of a professor, he entered the seminary in Laibach in 1821. Ordained on September 21, 1823, he served in several parishes in Slovenia for the next seven years, until he heard about a new group in Vienna that was searching for priests willing to venture into the North American wilderness to convert the Native Americans there to Christianity.
The Leopoldine Society, as it was called, raised money to establish parishes in the remoter parts of the United States and Canada, and Baraga became the first missionary it sent over. The journey took two months, and Baraga arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio—the Leopoldine Society headquarters in America—in mid-January of 1831. He began studying the language of the Ottawa, which was called Anishinaabe in their own tongue, in preparation for his first assignment. He was aided by an innate gift for languages, having already become fluent in German, French, Latin, Italian, and English, as well as his own Slovenian.
The Ottawa language that Baraga took up was part of the Algonquian family of Native American tongues. The Ottawa were traders, and related to the larger ethnic group of Ojibwa, who were sometimes called Chippewa. Ottawa communities dotted the shores of Lake Huron in both present-day Michigan and Ontario, but they had also settled further west in the Grand Traverse Bay area on Lake Michigan, and it was here that Baraga was first sent. In May of 1831 he arrived in Arbre Croche, an Ottawa village that much later became part of Harbor Springs, a Michigan resort community. He found about 650 residents there, and had great success in urging them to formally adopt Christianity, reportedly converting 547 of them.
Baraga realized that simple texts with the Roman Catholic catechism—a question-and-answer form of instruction in the beliefs of the faith—and prayer books in their native language would help him better explain the Christian principles to his potential converts, and guide the recently baptized in their new form of religious worship. He authored a combination of the two forms, using the Ottawa terms he had learned, and had it printed in 1832 with the title Otawa Anamie-Misinaigan . This became the first book ever published in the Ottawa language.
In 1833 Baraga was sent to start a second mission at Grand River, a community that later grew into the city of Grand Rapids, but encountered problems when he voiced concern about the liquor that fur traders were exchanging with Native Americans, which he felt was ruinous to the health of the community. In the summer of 1835 he moved much further north, this time to La Pointe, an outpost of the American Fur Company in the northernmost part of Wisconsin, on Lake Superior. The settlement included the nearby Apostle Islands, one of which was home to a trading post dating back to 1693. The village was populated by retired traders for the American Fur Company—the immensely successful venture founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808—as well as by the indigenous Ojibwa; there were also many Métis, a mixed-race group that were the product of intermarriage between French-Canadian or British traders and Native American women.
Baraga arrived in this area—a vast, frigid land mass that included Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was sparsely populated, heavily forested, and known mainly for the harshness of its long winter—at a time when there were almost no missionaries in the region, nor had there ever been. He set to work learning the Ojibwa language and proselytizing to both indigenous and Métis. The Ojibwa—or Aanishanabe as they called themselves in their own language—were the largest population group of Native Americans after the Cherokee and Navajo in the continental United States. In his eight years at La Pointe, Baraga baptized nearly a thousand Native Americans and whites, and authored his first text in the Ojibwa language, a sermon book tilted Gagikwe-Masiniagan .
Once Baraga had established a successful mission, he usually left it in the care of another priest and moved on to start another one. In 1843 he arrived in L'Anse, on the shores of Lake Superior at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula. The entire region was now a boom town, thanks to newly discovered copper and iron deposits in the Upper Peninsula; new European immigrants with mining backgrounds began flooding in. Baraga found himself the steward of a rapidly growing Roman Catholic population as well as the unofficial one for the Protestant settlers. In 1848 church authorities elevated him to the rank of vicar general; five years later he was consecrated bishop of Amyzonia, which was the original term for the diocese of Upper Michigan, later called the diocese of Marquette. Its seat was originally in Sault Ste. Marie. Furthermore, the bishop of Toronto put Baraga in charge of missions located on the north shore of Lake Superior from Bruce Mines to Thunder Bay, and a few even further north, such as one at Lake Nipigon.
In all, Baraga oversaw an 80,000-square mile territory of land and water, and became increasingly devoted to his vocation as he grew older. He traveled hundreds of miles every year in order to carry out his work, and used the Ojibwa modes of transportation—a canoe in the warmer months, and snowshoes for winter travel. In one letter, he wrote that he planned to visit La Pointe and L'Anse and then go on to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a journey of some 690 miles that he would make on foot. "When a person must walk upon such snowshoes all day long and for that many days in succession, especially in those trackless forests, he cannot travel without extreme fatigue and almost total exhaustion," he admitted in the letter, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Larry Oakes. He also rose at 3 or 4 a.m. daily in order to devote three hours of his morning to prayer.
Baraga became famous throughout northern Michigan and neighboring areas as the beloved "Snowshoe Priest," and even enjoyed some eminence in Europe, thanks to his writings about his work with the Ojibwa. He was respected by native groups as well as Protestant newcomers to the region, and venerated by his Roman Catholic congregation as an exemplar of Christ's teachings in practice. During the worst months of winter, Baraga remained inside—his permanent home was in L'Anse—and studied the Ojibwa language. He authored two significant works on this Anishinaabe dialect, which was widely spoken in the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The first, Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the Otchipwe Language , was published in Detroit in 1850. His Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language , published in Cincinnati in 1853, remained in print for decades to come, and provided an invaluable tool for the priests and other settlers who ventured into the region.
In 1865 Baraga moved to Marquette, Michigan, when this city near the shore of Lake Superior was named the new seat of the Upper Michigan diocese. A church commensurate with this status was built, and in 1866 the Cathedral of St. Peter was dedicated by Baraga during a Mass. Later that year, however, Baraga suffered a stroke in Baltimore during an important conference of American bishops; he reportedly begged his aide to help him on the train before his fellow clerics realized his condition and prevented him from returning to what had become his home. Over the next two years, Baraga's health declined further, and he died in Marquette on January 19, 1868. He was buried 11 days later in the Cathedral of St. Peter crypt, a day on which not even a blizzard snowstorm prevented hundreds of mourners from paying their respects.
The Cathedral of St. Peter sits on Baraga Street in Marquette, and there is also a Michigan county—which includes L'Anse, the site of his fourth mission—and village named in his honor. Devoted followers formed a society to honor him, the Bishop Baraga Association. More than a century after his death, the Association presented reams of research and testimony to an official church committee in Marquette in 1972. This hearing was the first step in the process toward Roman Catholic sainthood. Following this, the Vatican officially deemed Baraga a "Servant of God," a designation that is the first step on the path to sainthood. One younger priest, inspired by Baraga's stories of missionary work in America, was Father John Neumann (1811–1860), who later became bishop of Philadelphia and one of the first men and women to be elevated to sainthood for their religious work in America.
Milwaukee Journal , January 30, 1897.
Milwaukee Sentinel , March 27, 1899.
New York Times , September 19, 1972.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 30, 1997.
Baraga, Frederic, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online , http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=38403 (November 26, 2006).
Frederic Baraga, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia , http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02282b.htm (November 26, 2006).