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LACKAWANNA, N.Y. (WIVB) — For almost 100 years, the Our Lady of Victory Basilica has been a shining light in the City of Lackawanna. 

This is the crown jewel of all shrines in Western New York, made possible through the vision of Father Nelson Baker.

“It’s a tremendous, humbling gift, and I tell you that, to walk in the footsteps of Father Baker, to walk in here every day and to see what his vision came to fruition,” said Monsignor David LiPuma. “This is what he wanted to do; he wanted to build this crowning gem and he succeeded.” 

LiPuma is the pastor of the OLV Basilica. He tells News 4 that Father Baker saw a similar shrine in France and prayed he could build one here for the Buffalo Diocese.

“He wanted people to look up at the dome, which was the second largest in the country at the time after the capital,” said LiPuma. “He wanted people to see a vision of Heaven; there’s more to life than this world and there’s eternity of life and love and happiness awaiting us all. He wanted people to have a deep spiritual experience.”

It took five years to build the masterpiece at $3.5 million in the 1920s, and Father Baker had it paid for by donations when he opened the doors. Today it attracts visitors from around the world.

“To this day, people come in from all over the world and anyone I talk to, on any given day, are just in awe,” said LiPuma. “They say ‘I’ve traveled Europe, I’ve traveled the world, and this rivals cathedrals and basilicas and churches all over the world; it’s a gem.'” 

“It’s a place where people really connect with God, connect with our blessed mother and really, it’s a place where people can come and say ‘I feel at home here,'” said LiPuma.

Three years after the beautiful basilicas opened, the Great Depression hit, crippling our nation. Father Baker set up a breadline and served 450,000 meals over three years. 

Father Baker left quite the legacy in this town. He established an orphanage for unwed mothers to leave their babies. The boys were known as the “Baker Boys” and were educated. Known as the “padre to the poor,” Father Baker took care of the downtrodden, the sick, the homeless and the poor.

“He models for us, exemplifies for us, on what trusting in God at all times can do,” said LiPuma. “He never took any credit for anything. And anyone who came before him, he never said no; he’d always find a way to change peoples’ lives for the better.”

When the Vatican started considering Father Baker for sainthood, it was the Baker Boys who removed his casket from Holy Cross Cemetery and moved it to the basilica, where he is resting in peace near a grotto that is a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes.  

Today, OLV ministries, with all its programs, is the sixth largest provider of human services in western New York. It takes a special and gifted priest to oversee the shrine and all of the charitable programs. 

“It’s very humbling. But like Father Baker, I could never do this if I didn’t believe and trust that God would provide, and our blessed mother, and I pray to Father Baker every day for his intercession to help shepherd this and continue to guide it,” said LiPuma. “There’s a massive amount of people to do so much good work. That’s what makes it all possible.”

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Don Postles is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1993. See more of his work here.