BARAGA, Mich. (WJMN) -The small town of Baraga, is named after Bishop Frederic Baraga.
Born in Slovenia in 1797, Baraga initially studied law at the University of Vienna, but soon realized his true calling was the priesthood. In 1830, young Fredrick answered a request for priests to come to America and join the fledgling Diocese of Cincinnati.
Once in the states, Baraga studied the Ottawa languages of Native Americans to the north, and soon founded a mission in the Upper Peninsula near present day L’Anse. While at the mission, Baraga wrote several books in the Ojibwe language, including a dictionary that still continues to be used to this day. Baraga ministered to the growing mining communities of the Keweenaw, but his heart in service was connected to the Native peoples, becoming an advocate for them and a staunch defender of their right to remain on their homeland.
“Of course, they had a language, right,” said Lenora McKeen, Executive Director, Bishop Baraga Association. “They had their language, but it wasn’t written. He wanted them to be able to read. They wanted them to be able to write their language. And again, it was back to their language not, not some hybrid of that or not our language. And so that’s what he did was he helped create the Ojibwe/Chippewa dictionary and grammar. And he wanted that so that they could teach their children, they could teach other generations. But he also wanted it because as I said, the people that came behind him to work with them had to speak their language.”
Baraga was known as the ‘Snowshoe Priest’, because he ministered to such a large and remote area, many times he had to travel hundreds of miles on foot to reach his parishioner, many times using snowshoes to travel in winter.
“He spent the next 38 years walking the vast Great Lakes area,” said McKeen. “Upper Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, to bring the faith and to teach”.
One the most impressive sights in all of Michigan, let alone Baraga County is the Bishop Baraga Shrine. This 60-foot-high statue is perched on top of the cliffs surrounding Keweenaw Bay.
The statue features a 35-foot brass statue of Baraga holding a 7-foot cross in his right hand and a 26-foot pair of snowshoes in his left. It was dedicated in the summer of 1973 and continues to be one of the most popular attractions in the area.
After 23 years in the wilderness, Father Frederic Baraga was elevated to Bishop of what is now the Diocese of Marquette, Baraga even laid the cornerstone of Marquette’s first Catholic church, located on the site of Saint Peters Cathedral today. Baraga served as the leader of the Diocese of Marquette until his death in 1868. Although his tomb is in Marquette, his heart still dwells in the rugged Northwoods among his beloved Native peoples.
To learn more about Bishop Baraga, click here.