By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
Preparing for his future administration of the Diocese of Charleston has Bishop Robert J. Baker reflecting on his past.
His 13-year tenure at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine (1984 to 1997) was the ideal preparation for the bishopcy of South Carolina’s Catholic Church.
Both dioceses have cities steeped in historical significance — the Cathedral-Basilica is the oldest parish in the United States, established Sept. 8, 1565. Charleston is the home of St. Mary of the Annunciation, the oldest Catholic church in the Carolinas.
“I realize the commonality between Charleston and St. Augustine,” reflected Bishop Baker. “Both cities have a sense of history and pride in the roots of faith, beauty and culture. They are carrying on tradition with a sense of that which is good, true and beautiful throughout the ages. That is what we want to preserve throughout the future.”
The two southern dioceses also share similar missions with growing African-American populations, shifting migrant ministries, growing Catholic relocation to their warm climates and economical growth. The cathedrals and St. Mary’s alone share the same styles of stained glass created by Mayer and Company of Munich, Germany.
All of that is very much a blessing for a history expert who spent over a decade living and working with his bishop and learning first-hand about running a diocese. Bishop Baker is grateful for the time he spent with his bishop, John J. Snyder.
“Seeing his pastoral style and learning from his simple way of life, I hope to imitate his virtues and simplicity of joy in serving the people of God,” he said.
Combine that experience with Bishop Baker’s reputation in St. Augustine and the result is a priest and shepherd who has sensitivity to all peoples, a Christlike kindness, and a gentle leadership.
In their 13-year working relationship, Bishop Snyder cannot recall an instance of tension or disagreement.
“He is such an open and collaborative person,” Bishop Snyder said. “He was just so loved. You can’t be with that man without having a sense of respect for him, for his sense of integrity, and for his commitment to the Lord. We are rejoicing and crying. Bishop Baker is going to be a great blessing to the Church in South Carolina.”
Father Baker’s pastorship at the Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine included many facets. He ministered at the Mission of Nombre de Dios with its Prince of Peace Votive Church, the Shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Leche and the Great Cross, which appears on the prelate’s new coat of arms.
He was responsible for St. Benedict the Moor Church, originally established as a mission for African-Americans.
“Bob has such a sensitivity to the African-American community,” Bishop Snyder said. “He is knowledgeable in history and loves it in the sense of the mission of the Southeast. St. Benedict has a rich history. The population was an aging African-American population. The young people were moving out. Bob really did everything possible to make them realize that he was committed to them. He started Friday evening Benediction, potluck suppers, stations of the cross in Lent. His parishioners knew that he would really be concerned about them.”
The Cathedral Parish School is an institution of pride for Bishop Baker, he put many a long hour in sprucing up its buildings and grounds. He worked side-by-side with his parishioners.
He was also director of cemeteries, principally Sam Lorenzo Cemetery, where several bishops are buried.
As Cathedral pastor, he maintained a close relationship with the Community of the Sisters of St. Joseph and celebrated Mass for them almost every day. The nuns came to the area in 1803 from Le Puy, France, to establish Catholic schools and charities for black and white people.
With his realm of responsibilities, Father Baker always had time for people in need. He opened his arms to the homeless by establishing the ecumenical St. Francis House and Emergency Shelter.
“In the small town of St. Augustine you can’t hide the poor,” said Father Terrence Morgan, pastor of the Cathedral-Basilica. “There are transients in a park right in front of the church. When I go out into the park and see a transient, I have the convenience of pulling a card out of my pocket and saying this is where you can go. I really owe that to Bob. He also worked hard with Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.”
South Carolina’s new bishop is happy to see that his efforts carry on.
“Hopefully they will carry on long after I am gone,” he said. “Whatever measure of success one has in life is gauged by what happens afterward than in one’s lifetime. One sets in motion God’s guidance and grace certain efforts, but the real test of the wisdom of those efforts is what happens afterward.”
The fisherman teaches others to fish. Father Baker’s work with the society and his care for the street people evolved into the Our Lady of Hope Community’s St. Vincent de Paul Farm for people suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. He also preached where hope was needed most, at the prisons.
“He had a deep concern for the county prison in St. Augustine,” Bishop Snyder said. “He always made sure the bishop went there prior to Christmas. He ministered to people on Death Row — he walked that last journey with many of them. He was never confrontational or accusatory, it was just a question of looking at it for him.
“He was on committees for victims of violence as well as ones that committed it. He lives the spirit of St. Francis. He’s just such a gentle, good person. It is impossible to think of any group that didn’t have a deep respect for him.”
Of the many gifts Father Baker left to St. Augustine was a parish hall for the Cathedral-Basilica.
It was erected in 1995 adjacent to the parish school a few blocks away. Bishop Baker helped lead his parishioners in the fund raising.
“Father Bob dreamed big when he launched the project,” Father Terrence said. “With budgets strained, Father Bob stormed heaven for God’s help and beat the bushes for contributions of time, talent, labor, materials, and money.”
The building was rededicated two weeks ago: the Bishop Robert J. Baker Hall.
“We wanted to give him something that he couldn’t give away,” joked Father Morgan. “You cannot give this fellow anything, he gives it away immediately. We had been racking our brains to come up with something he wouldn’t give away.”
Today, 6,000 people attend the Cathedral-Basilica including regular parishioners and tourists. The demographics were changing rapidly in Father Baker’s era.
“He had vision to see that, so he added six classrooms to the parish school,” Father Morgan said.
He also started a Memorial Day weekend parish festival. This year it profited $80,000.
“He tapped into some very creative people, gave them the ball and let them run with it,” credited Father Morgan. “He had the energy to keep it moving.”
The Cathedral-Basilica’s pastor related what longtime friend Father John Gillespie said was Father Baker’s leadership genius: “For many parishes the activity going on relies on the priest’s charismatic energy to keep it going and when they leave it gets worse,” Father Morgan said. “Father Baker had the vision to see a problem and its challenge, and to get a leadership group to run with the ball, so that group would continue to develop the project.
“What a wonderful tribute to a priest to say that after he left things got even better,” continued Father Morgan. “His energy, his creativity, his leadership, his real sense of calm derive from a simple but intense personal relationship with our Lord. Not only are the people of Charleston getting a quality bishop, they are getting a wonderful friend.”
That is a sentiment that Betsy Coxe, office manager at the Cathedral, can second.
She originally volunteered on the parish hall building committee in 1985 and was hired three years later as the parish secretary. She saw nothing but consistency with Father Baker.
“He was very, very good to me and all his employees,” said the woman who probably knew the priest best during their decade-long association. “I don’t think there is a more humble, kind, holy priest that I know of … ever. His spirituality plays into it. When people tell you the man would give his shirt off his back, believe them, we have seen him do it.”
Coxe recalls homeless and street people coming to the rectory door after hours.
“I know the man (Baker) would go to his room and get a shirt or whatever they needed,” she said. “His time was so precious, it’s not easy running this parish — the time that he would take with these people to listen to their story and give them spiritual guidance was amazing.”
Coxe, former editor of the Cathedral Times newspaper, remembers times when she literally had to chase him down the hall because the man was so busy.
“I got pretty good at getting my answers on the run,” she said. “He would bend over backward to make things the best for his employees that he could. He led by example. There wasn’t a lot of slinging around orders; he just did his job and felt other people could look around and see what needed to be done. To me that’s where so much of his holiness comes from. He’s a man you want to follow.”
Coxe still keeps in touch with Bishop Baker.
“I think I came to a much deeper understanding of my faith and of myself after having been around Father Baker,” she said.
Patty Schiavo, the Cathedral’s finance manager feels the same way. She started out working with him as treasurer for the Friends of St. Vincent de Paul Inc., the managers of the farm for recovering addicts.
“Working with Father Baker was wonderful,” she said. “He was very dedicated to the farm and always concerned about the well-being of the guys there first and foremost. Anything we had a question about he would see to it right away, he would drop anything. It didn’t matter where he was in the world, he was always in contact. He always had a love for community. He is a very spiritual man.”
When it came to the Cathedral, Schiavo said he was first and foremost a great spiritual leader.
“He is a charitable leader,” she said, “even with problems with employees he always dealt with it in a charitable way. Truly, in my eyes, he always responded as I felt Jesus would respond. He was always kind and gentle whether he was dealing with finances or personnel issues. He dealt with things through prayer.”
Schiavo felt confident approaching her employer and pastor about anything.
“The first thing he would say is ‘let’s pray about it,'” she explained. “Then he’d pray about it and respond. He is not afraid to show his faith, and he has a great devotion to Our Lady. He is a spiritual giant but such a humble man.”
She admires his ability to manage work, spirituality, yet look out for other people’s welfare.
He’s always going out of his way to help people and to notice the details,” she continued. “That’s the way he did with everyone, employees, priests and parishioners. You just don’t meet many people like that with that joy inside of them. He really is with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. He was a great example for me.”
Perhaps a great example for all.
On a sundial outside of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine there is written an admonition: “The hours pass, and you will be held accountable (for them).”
However, for a priest and prelate with the unbounded energy and faith of Bishop Robert J. Baker, there are just not enough hours in the day.