Frederic Baraga, apostle of the Indians

The Snowshoe Priest

Indians called him the Snowshoe Priest, because of his long winter trips on foot. They also honoured him with the title “Great Blackgown”. In the state of Michigan they named a county after him - Baraga county. In his own country of birth Slovenia, he is a revered figure, among those Slovenes of note who have committed their life and talents to their fellow men. Libraries, cultural centers and streets have been named after him – a living example of an exemplary life and exemplary contribution to mankind.

A highly educated and talented man, fluent in a number of languages, he left a legacy of literature in Ojibwa language unequalled in any North American Indian language.

One of the great men in the history of the Slovene nation, Frederic Baraga was born in 1797, just eight years after the outbreak of the French Revolution. A patriarch of missionaries, he carved his name and the name of his country into the chronicles of the northern regions of the United States of America.

Slovenian  Illyria - the renewal of national awareness
From the beginning, Baraga’s life coincided with significant events in his homeland, 1797 being the year the French first stepped onto Slovene soil. The country became a victim of the military struggles between the French and Austrians, but ultimately benefited by the French conquest when Napoleon combined the regions of Kranjska, Goriška, Istria, West Koroška, Tyrol and the southern Dalmatian lands (including Dubrovnik) into one state which he called Illyria. Although short-lived, it was important because the French recognized and encouraged the rights of the Slovenes to their own language and culture, laying the foundations for a new age of national awareness and independence.

Slovenian became the teaching language in primary schools, and opportunities for higher education were provided with the establishment in 1811 of an academy (with chairs in theology, philosophy, law and medicine). This foundation exposed the extent to which the country had been dominated by a foreign culture, because apart from Valentin Vodnik’s five books, there were no texts available in Slovenian print, and teachers had to lecture from manuscripts. The history of the Slovenian language had deviated from the tradition established by Primož Trubar and Jurij Dalmatin with their translation of the Bible into the Slovenian vernacular.

Lawyer and Linguist
Orphaned at fifteen, Baraga with his sisters had gone to live with his godfather, the lawyer Jurij Dolinar, who inspired him to also read law. A brilliant career and marriage with Dolinar’s daughter beckoned, but after meeting Redemptionist priest Klemen Dvorak, Baraga chose the priesthood. His next decision was to first complete his legal studies - these included courses in Roman, church, state, international and criminal law - subjects which, like his linguistic skills, were to prove an essential part of his ministry among the Indians.

Initially the Vienna diocese and seminary had been his immediate goal, but Bishop Augustin Gruber called upon a church law, which obliged Baraga to remain in Ljubljana. When Baraga’s application for acceptance into the seminary was approved, the Episcopal Board decreed that he should also attend ‘extraordinary’ lectures in the Slovenian language. He was later to write that his Slovenian prayer books were the symbol of his lasting devotion and love for his countrymen.

Baraga had a natural gift for languages, and his interest expanded to include the study of English and Spanish as well as the requisite German, French, Slovenian, Greek and Latin. Other subjects he specially enjoyed were music and drawing, all being disciplines which he put to effective use as both missionary and historian.

Painter and Priest
It was characteristic for Baraga to preface his first year of theological studies with a painting of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the choice of subject revealing his view of the priest’s role; it also set the pattern for supplementing his descriptions of his missionary travels and experiences with images, his paintings and drawings becoming pictorial records (sometimes the only records remaining) of the places where he lived and worked.

As in most things he excelled in theology and was ordained into the priesthood by the end of his second year. He began his ministry in 1824 as chaplain at Šmartno near Kranj, quickly gaining fame as a preacher. His piety was warm and personal, in contrast to the severe, intellectualised spirit of Jansenism then prevalent in the country. The Jansenists stressed man’s badness and provoked fear and despair, while Baraga captivated his congregations with his mixture of profundity and sweetness. He was a popular preacher and people were prepared to walk for many hours to hear him speak.

Missionary and Historian of the 'Midnight' Land
Baraga left for America in 1831, and with Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati journeyed to the Michigan lakes and Arbre Croche, land of the Ottawa Indians, where he continued the work of his Jesuit predecessors – building homes, churches and schools. He kept a register of Indian baptisms and learned their language, becoming so fluent that he wrote his first Ottowan prayer book within the year. In 1833 he left for Grand Rapids and the Ojibwa or Chippewa tribe, producing the fruits of his studies two years later - six books, three in the Indian and three in the French, German and Slovenian languages respectively. He was a prolific letter writer and born historian who added an extra dimension to his written descriptions with Indian artefacts. His collection of these surpasses the national and European context because of its cultural, historical and ethnographic significance, bearing witness to the culture of the tribes that lived at the Great Lakes. His groundbreaking history with the title Geschichte, Character, Sitten und Gebrauche der nordamerikanischer Indianer, published in Ljubljana in 1837 in German, Slovenian and later French languages was the first of its kind in central Europe and was found to be informative, well researched, based in part on personal observation, systematic and balanced.

Baraga’s Ojibwan Grammar and Dictionary
Knowledge of the Indian languages was essential to Baraga, fundamental to his understanding of them as individuals and as a people with traditions, culture and spiritual beliefs. He started with the Ottowan language, and then changed to the related Ojibwan. He wrote Ojibwan words in his leather-bound notebook and added translations in French and English, sometimes also in Slovenian. By 1847 he completed the grammar. It was published in 1850 in Detroit with the title A Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the Otchipwe Language. Baraga planned to publish an extended and improved version in 1961, but abandoned the plan, possibly because of high printing costs. In 1977, after Baraga’s death, the Canadian missionary Albert Lacombe published a compilation which included Baraga’s grammar and the grammar of the Canadian missionary Georges Belcourt.

Along with the grammar Baraga worked on the dictionary. In the beginning he planned an Ojibwa-French dictionary since the majority of the Ojibwa people lived in the territory settled by the French, later he decided on the English-Ojibwa version, to lower the costs of printing and to match the grammar, which was published only in English.

The dictionary was published in 1853 in Cincinnati with the title A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, explained in English. It was the first printed dictionary of Ojibwa language, and is still regarded as the best, with 30,000 entries on 622 pages (manuscript of 1,700 pages). It is still valued today, when many of the expressions noted by Baraga, have disappeared. It was   reprinted in 1878, 1880 and again in 1973.

Baraga had only one regret, that he was not able to perfect his work on the dictionary. About the Ojibwa language he said that it was strange but regular and beautiful. In his introduction to the grammar he quoted the American anthropologist Henry R. Schoolcraft, that a true history of Indian tribes and their inter-relationships must be based on findings gained through linguistic research.

No missionary in Baraga’s time published more books in an Indian language, including linguistic works and school readers, or has been reprinted as many times. With his publications the Ojibwa Indians received the richest religious literature of all the North American Indians. Significantly, Baraga’s pastoral letter of 1853, in Ojibwa language, printed as a brochure of 10 pages is regarded as the first official document in any Indian language in USA and Canada.

Pioneer of Indian Human Rights
Baraga was ahead of his time on several fronts – social as well as religious. Writing from L’Anse, he told of the eagerness of the Ojibwa to learn arithmetic and to read and write. Of the 51 pupils attending his school, some acquired reading skills in less than two months.

Baraga fought for the Indians rights, seeking to preserve them from what was destructive in the white man's encroaching 'civilization' (numerous epidemics, the ravages of alcohol, the poaching on native hunting grounds). He promoted an agriculturally based economy, which would replace traditional sources of livelihood, buying land on the Indians behalf, and encouraging them to organize themselves into firmly knit communities. He used his legal skills to persuade governments to honour treaty agreements and sought to broaden the Indians economic base by teaching them trades. This effort to establish and sustain the Indians independence and self-esteem he reinforced by stressing the use of the vernacular in the ceremonies of the Latin Church. In this too, he was breaking ground.

Confession, Culture and Communion
While the sacrament of the confessional had always been important to Baraga, in the New World it acquired added cultural significance, becoming a point of convergence between the two peoples. Like him, the Ojibwa also saw many similarities between the practice of confessing and their vision/sound quest. Confidentiality marked both. In the quest, as with the Christian confessional, the locale was removed from the everyday, and the Indian was receptive to visits from the spirits. Visions had power to change his conduct, even his character, so that he could assume a different moral perspective. Prior to this the offender was in a moral sense incomplete, but through vision the purpose that conferred meaning and unity to life was regained.

This penitential forum provided Baraga with a unique, privileged insight into the Ojibwa, allowing him to translate oral expressions into literal forms of catechisms, prayers, grammars and dictionaries, works still used today, a bridge between the two cultures. The relationship was reciprocal, the Indians at times also the initiators, influencing Baraga's formation as a bishop. His pastoral letters affirm aspects of Ojibwa spirituality and its emphasis on the Great Spirit, Manitou, as pre-eminent creator. Baraga too saw himself as a servant of this Great Spirit and lived the life of the Ojibwa, his identification with them so strong that at the end he seemed even to assume their appearance. As is seen in later portraits, his features and expression resemble those of elderly chiefs. This would have pleased him, as they in turn loved him as a father and friend, honouring his episcopal status by the title 'Great Blackgown'.

Vicar of the Missions, Bishop and Statesman
Baraga twice returned to his country of birth. The first time In 1836, the year his Bishop pronounced him General Vicar of the Missions; the second time some twenty years later, on his consecration as bishop. Each time he was called to attend audiences with the Heads of both Church and State (Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX) and similarly, two Emperors - Ferdinand (with Chancellor Metternich) and Franz Josef (at whose wedding to Bavarian princess Elizabeth he concelebrated Mass). He had become an authority on the New World, a consultant with virtually ambassadorial status.

Shepherd of the Poor
The honours he received did not deflect Baraga from his simple lifestyle or missionary endeavours. For his episcopal seat he chose the small settlement of Sault de Sainte Marie, later settling in Marquette. But by the 1860’s he was worn out, overtaken by hunger, rigorous living conditions and journeys in all weathers from mission to mission in an 80,000 square mile territory (which included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario). The sturdy health he had always enjoyed suddenly failed him, and he was gripped by an illness from which he never recovered. Humbly asking God for an end to the suffering, his prayer was answered in an unexpected way, when in the typically bitter cold of a North American winter, he died.  It was Sunday 19 January 1868.

The path to Canonization
The process for Frederic Baraga’s canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church is now under way.


Golob, Franc, Misijonarji, darovalci Indijanskih predmetov, Slovenski Etnografski Muzej, Ljubljana, 1997
Gregorič, Jože, Baragova Misijonska Pisma (Baraga’s Missionary Letters),  Ljubljana, 1983
Jaklič, Franc, Misijonski Škof Irenej Friderik Baraga, Družba sv. Mohorja, Celje, 1931
Pomedli, Michael M., The Ojibwa and Bishop Frederick Baraga: Mutual influences through the confessional, in Dve domovini, 2003, vol. 17, pp. 9-27, Institute for Slovenian Immigrant Studies, Ljubljana
Sitar, Sandi ed., Dvanajst Velikih Slovencev, Mihelac, Ljubljana, 1994