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The ‘Miracles’ of Father Baker

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.4, July/August 2014

Father Baker portrait

The late Western New York priest, the revered Father Nelson Baker (1841–1936), devoted himself to Catholic works, including replacing a fire-damaged church with an impressive basilica and creating a hospital, a boys’ orphanage, a boys’ protectory, and other institutions. My collection of Father Baker memorabilia (Figure 1) includes a set of old newspapers that range over a several-day period in 1936 with full-page spreads telling of his death (July 29), the viewing of his body, and his funeral and burial. Crowds swelled, and the faithful vied to touch the dead monsignor’s ring or to press against it “holy relics” they brought (Thousands 1936). As one news article explained, “This, in the tradition of the Church, is tantamount to a blessing bestowed by a living divine” (Father Baker 1936). An honor guard around the open coffin, which lay in state in the basilica, kept a watchful eye as some attempted to snip a lock of his hair or cut a piece of his vestment for a “relic” of the envisioned future saint (Anderson 2002, 113).

Since then, parishioners of the city of Lackawanna, New York, where Baker’s Our Lady of Victory Basilica stands, have advanced the “cause” of elevating him to sainthood, and formal efforts began in 1987. To facilitate this possibility, in 1999 Baker’s body was disinterred from the Holy Cross Cemetery near the basilica and transferred to a crypt inside the basilica itself. In 2011, the Church officially elevated Baker to “venerable” status, the first of three steps to sainthood. Now, two miracles are needed to complete the process—leading first to beatification, then to canonization (Tokasz 2013). Here we look at a few of the unusual incidents that some have called “miraculous,” although none has been accepted as such by the Catholic Church.

The Eyes of Beholders

Science has never authenticated a single miracle. Miracle claims, in fact, are invariably based on a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance”—that is, drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. Take “miraculous” healings for example. Insisting that a given case is medically inexplicable does not constitute proof that a miracle occurred. Some illnesses are known to exhibit spontaneous remission, while other reputed cures may be due to misdiagnosis, psychosomatic conditions, the body’s own natural healing ability, and other factors, including the delayed benefits of previous medical treatment (Nickell 2013, 183–184).

Among the numerous supposedly miraculous healings attributed to Baker are several that involve eye conditions. In a case reported in 1948, for example, a malfunctioning machine caused a piece of metal to lodge in a worker’s eye. While one specialist reportedly recommended the eye’s removal, the victim and his wife chose instead to chance surgery, and this was a success in that the patient regained some sight (Koerner 2005, 44–45). But this can hardly be called a miracle, even a partial one, and is instead a lesson about assessing risk and getting a second opinion.

In 1950, a Kansas man received an injury to both eyes, and, we are told, “The doctors gave no hope for the eye or the sight in the other eye either.” Now, such no-hope-from-doctors claims are almost obligatory in miracle tales, but we usually hear this at second hand, not from the doctors themselves. In any case, doctors may be mistaken. So when we learn the man did not lose his eye and regained all but 10 percent of his sight, do we really have a miracle—the man’s wife linking the success to her having invoked Baker (Koerner 2005, 45)—or is this simply another case (such as the previous one) in which someone credits a superstitious practice rather than skilled medical performance?

In still another case, in 1953 a Wisconsin boy’s homemade bomb exploded, seriously damaging his eye. At first, the doctors held out little hope and asked permission to remove the eye. However, during another examination prior to surgery, the boy reported some sight, and his vision then steadily improved. Because the boy’s mother had prayed to the Virgin Mary and Father Baker, she credited them with a miracle (Koerner 2005, 45–46), rather than acknowledging that her son’s condition was not as bad as it had appeared and that his body’s own natural healing mechanisms were activated.

Such reports betray the claimants’ eagerness to believe that science is trumped by the supernatural, no matter the actual facts. Their spin that Baker was somehow involved in their cases—say as an unaware intercessor—is ironic in light of his own situation. For Nelson Baker—having had some trauma in his own right eye—suffered for approximately his last decade with just half his vision, indeed having a glass eye (Koerner 2005, 47). The old proverb (recalled in Luke 4:23) comes to mind: “Physician, heal thyself.”

The Still-Liquid Blood

When Baker’s coffin was unearthed in 1999 for reinterment in the basilica (where it would be more accessible for people to venerate the priest and so further the canonization campaign), something remarkable occurred. Discovered in a small vault resting on the coffin were three vials of his blood that had been obtained at the time his body was embalmed. The purpose behind this is unknown, but, as it turned out, the blood was surprisingly still liquid. Was this a miracle, as some were quick to claim? (In Catholicism, evidence of “incorruptibility” of bodies was touted over the centuries, but modern investigations have revealed proof of corpses’ embalming, repair, faces covered with wax masks, and other explanations [Nickell 2013, 169–172]).

A small portion of the author’s collection of Father Baker memorabilia: an old postcard of Our Lady of Victory Basilica, a statuette, and a bottle of holy water from the basilica. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

The opinions of several pathologists were sought, and I followed the issue with interest—visiting the old grave site and the new crypt in the basilica (which now has a museum to Baker in its basement), talking with various persons, including one of the consulted pathologists, and doing additional research, even conducting experiments in my paranormal lab at the Center for Inquiry. I wrote a letter, cosigned by Paul Kurtz (CSI founder) and Barry Karr (executive director), to the then Bishop of Buffalo, Henry J. Mansell, asking for information on tests of the blood. Mansell (2000) replied that “The tests, affidavits, and testimony in the cause of Father Baker are all confidential as the case goes forward, so I am not at liberty to share the documentation with you.” It was the kind of noncooperation in such matters with Catholic authorities (e.g., the Shroud of Turin) that I was used to.

In my forensic and related inquiries, I learned that it is not without precedent for what has been removed from a body to be buried with it. It happens at autopsy, for example (Loghmanee 2007). However, the Baker blood vials seem different in their selectivity and special presentation.1 There are a number of hypotheses to explain how blood might remain liquid for over sixty years. “If the vial is sealed,” reported Dr. Ken Blumenthal (2003), who chairs the Department of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, “there’s no reason to expect it to have evaporated.” And if the vial “was sterile to begin with, and was filled with no air left inside, the sample could very well remain intact indefinitely.”

Dr. John Wright (2003), a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the same university, offered a similar opinion and added: “I presume Father Baker was not anti-coagulated pre-mortem but he could have died with disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) syndrome (a common mode of death), and used up all of the coagulants that would normally make blood clot. There are probably a host of other possible explanations, however.”

Among other possibilities is that some preservative may have been added to the blood, which, after all, had obviously been intended to be preserved. In one discussion, the suggestion was made that the blood, if taken from that forced out of the body by the embalming fluid, might have contained some of the latter. However, most embalming fluid contains some formaldehyde, which—as my own experiments show—has the effect of thickening or even solidifying the blood rather than keeping it liquid.2 Still, there are various solutions that can both preserve and prevent the coagulation of whole blood, if the blood were removed so that formaldehyde-containing embalming fluid was not present (Bloodindex 2013).

Whatever the actual facts, however, the church has not accepted that the blood’s having remained liquid is evidence a miracle occurred. As a rule of thumb in such matters, I try never to be less skeptical than the Catholic Church.

Miraculous Awakening?

At 6:54 am, December 29, 1995, the roof of a burning house collapsed on Buffalo fireman Donald J. Herbert. Before being rescued, he had been starved of oxygen for some six minutes, resulting in brain damage. For almost the next decade, he was in a minimally responsive state, unable to communicate effectively.

Then, suddenly, on April 30, 2005, while sitting in his wheelchair in Father Baker Manor, a nursing home in Orchard Park, New York, Herbert began calling aloud for his wife, Linda, and four sons. He was soon talking and recognizing family, friends, and fellow firefighters. The change in his condition was remarkable (Lakamp 2013).

Many called it a miracle. One of his physicians at Father Baker Manor thought so, saying at a press conference, “I can’t explain it any other way. It’s phenomenal.” Indeed, some thought it was just the case they were looking for to spark the canonization of the priest the rest home was named for. They believed the Herbert case could well be one of the two requisite miracles needed to declare Baker a saint. Soon, however, such hopes were all but dashed. Herbert’s “recovery”—already limited—was uneven, and it suffered a decline after a nighttime fall from bed sent him to a hospital emergency room for stiches to his head. He died February 22, 2006, eight months after his awakening (Koerner 2009, 44–47; Lakamp 2013).

Herbert’s unusual case did not seem to meet the requirements for canonization. The Vatican requires such a miracle not only to be medically inexplicable but also complete and permanent—Herbert’s was neither—and for the candidate for sainthood to have interceded. The latter act could not be effectively established, since Linda Herbert had prayed not only to Father Baker but also “to every saint and holy figure on record” (Blake 2007, 235). So to whom should the supposed intercession be attributed?

In fact, Donald Herbert’s wonderful improvement—limited and temporary though it proved to be—was apparently due to science. About three months before, Herbert’s physician, Dr. Jamil Ahmed of the University at Buffalo, had prescribed a “cocktail” of medications for Herbert. The drugs targeted chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine to treat problems of attention, cognition, and so on. (See Hitti 2005).

Monsignor Robert Wurtz, a pastor involved in the crusade to canonize Father Baker, reportedly credited Herbert’s improvement to the drug cocktail rather than to Baker’s intercession. This effectively eliminated the Herbert case from consideration as a miracle (Blake 2007, 243; Koerner 2009, 47).

It should be emphasized that the Herbert case is unlike another high-profile one—that of Terry Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state and so had her life ended by the removal of her feeding tube. Herbert’s situation was such that he was severely disabled but apparently minimally conscious—not vegetative (Hitti 2005).

* * *

As these several examples make clear, claims of miracles attributed to Father Nelson Baker seem endless but are, at best, only examples of the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance. As I stated in a letter to The Buffalo News (Nickell 2011) “. . . Not only is such an argument unscientific in its implication. It’s obviously meant to keep science in a position subservient to the supernatural, when in fact there is no credible evidence for other than a real, natural world. If the Church wishes to honor Baker for his public service, it should by all means do so. But let there be an end to the miracles game.”


Acknowledgments

Many people assisted with this article. In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am grateful to the CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga and former librarian Lisa Nolan.

Notes

1. The jars were “enclosed in a leather case and then placed in a conolite box on top of Baker’s steel coffin” (Koerner 2005, 66).

2. I used formalin (diluted formaldehyde) and the anti-liquid effect was still profound.

References

Anderson, Floyd. 2002. Father Nelson Baker: Apostle of Charity. N.p. [Lackawanna, NY]: Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity.

Blake, Rich. 2007. The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up: A True Story. New York: Harmony Books.

Bloodindex. 2013. Online at http://www.bloodindex.org/blood_anticoagulation_preservation.php; accessed July 25, 2013.

Blumenthal, Dr. Ken. 2003. Cited in Koerner 2005, 67.

Father Baker. 1936. The Buffalo News (July 31): sports section, 31.

Hitti, Miranda. 2005. Firefighter’s miracle recovery rare in long-term coma cases. Fox News (May 6). Online at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,155608,00.html; accessed June 17, 2013.

Koerner, John. 2005. The Mysteries of Father Baker. Buffalo, NY: Western New York Wares.

———. 2009. The Father Baker Code. Buffalo, NY: Western New York Wares

Lakamp, Patrick. 2013. The fight behind the miracle. The Buffalo News (June 16).

Loghmanee, Dr. Fazlollah. 2007. Interview by Joe Nickell, December 25.

Mansell, Rev. Henry J. 2000. Letter of reply to Paul Kurtz, Joe Nickell, and Barry Karr, December 4.

Nickell, Joe. 2011. A so-called miracle has never been proved. Letter to The Buffalo News (February 26).

———. 2013. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Thousands Bid Farewell. . . . 1936. The Buffalo Times (August 2): 6–A (photo caption).

Tokasz, Jay. 2013. Parish seeks aid funding Father Baker sainthood. The Buffalo News (July 24): A1–2.

Wright, Dr. John. 2003. Cited in Koerner 2005, 67–68.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.