LACKAWANNA, New York (AP) — The 25-year effort to elevate to sainthood a beloved New York priest known as the "Padre of the Poor" has so far cost upward of $100,000, and plans are in the works to raise hundreds of thousands more.
Even the most fervent supporters of the Rev. Nelson Baker acknowledge it's an amount that probably would have made the humble servant of the needy uncomfortable.
But such canonization expenses are not unusual in the Roman Catholic Church, experts say, and are gaining new attention in the "poor church for the poor" envisioned by Pope Francis.
Monsignor Paul Burkard is shepherding efforts to bank an additional $250,000 for anticipated ceremonies and other future expenses. He believes the outlays so far for lawyers, printing, research and travel has been well spent, even in a former steel city diocese that is closing struggling schools and churches.
Baker was a Civil War veteran who co-owned a feed and grain business before being ordained a priest in 1876. Embracing society's neediest, he expanded the charitable mission of his church in Lackawanna, a Buffalo-area city, improving its orphanages and opening a school, a home for unwed mothers and infants, and a hospital. In thanks, Baker built a dazzling shrine to Our Lady of Victory, a basilica that draws 2,000 visitors a month.
"I think Father Baker would probably be embarrassed that anybody would spend that much time or money to showcase him," Burkard said. "But in the long run, it actually helps the poor because more publicity about Father Baker means more people know about him and contribute to our charitable works here."
Burkard said the ongoing attention to Baker, who died in 1936 at 95, has already helped the social services agencies that continue to operate here in his name, drawing donations from all over the country and beyond. He said the Baker Victory Services' dental clinic alone provided more than 21,000 procedures last year, many for disabled children.
But canonization is an arduous, expensive process that has tended to favor larger religious orders that have the resources and know-how to navigate it.
It's something the Vatican seems to be acknowledging with a new, undisclosed "reference" price, announced this month, which those officially guiding causes will have to abide by. Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican's saint-making office, said it is intended to inspire "a sense of simplicity and fairness."
"They're trying to drop the price and trying to make it easier financially for different groups who support different saints to move their causes ahead," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York City and author of "My Life with the Saints."
The Congregation of the Causes of Saints approved the initiation of Baker's cause in 1987, and in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI declared him venerable, the first step in a three-part process. The first of two miracles that must be attributed to Baker before he can be canonized is now undergoing a painstakingly thorough review involving input from doctors and other experts.
Burkard said he is not allowed to disclose the nominated miracle. Countless people have attributed everything from sobriety to recovery from car accidents to intercession by Baker.
Many attribute the sudden 2005 awakening of a brain-injured Buffalo firefighter from nearly a decade in a vegetative state to Baker. Firefighter Don Herbert had been living in Father Baker Manor, a nursing home, and there were family prayers to the priest for his recovery. Before Herbert unexpectedly became lucid and began to speak, there had been medications and prayers to others — which would have made Baker's intervention difficult to prove. Herbert's recovery was short-lived, and he died in 2006.
The expenses began with Baker's acceptance as a candidate for sainthood, leading to a yearslong research effort during which thousands of pages of material on his life and work were gathered and distilled into the 1,100-page Positio, a required position paper that was written and rewritten, printed, bound, translated into Italian and submitted to Rome.
For years, the parish has kept a Vatican-certified canon lawyer on retainer, at around $10,000 a year, to represent the cause overseas, and Burkard travels to Rome once or twice a year for progress meetings.