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Monument on Lake Superior’s North Shore honors missionary priest

Aug 08, 2019 06:47AM ● By Editor

A granite cross honoring Father Frederic Baraga, who made a heroic landing on the North Shore of Lake Superior, sits near the mouth of the Cross River and overlooks the lake. Photo:  Louis Grams  

By Dave Hrbacek of The Catholic Spirit - August 7, 2019

Visitors to the North Shore of Lake Superior can inspire their faith as they take in the rugged, natural beauty of the region’s woods and waters.

In addition to those wonders, a monument honoring a heroic and inspiring 19th-century priest some believe may one day be canonized a saint sits just off the lake. It’s near the mouth of the Cross River, two hours north of Duluth along Highway 61 near the town of Schroeder.

Father Frederic Baraga and his Ojibwe guide made an epic landing at this spot in 1846 after a treacherous journey across the lake that began in the Apostle Islands about 50 miles away. They had paddled out onto the lake in a flat-bottom canoe toward their intended destination of Grand Portage, home to indigenous people Father Baraga had hoped to visit.

Calm skies turned stormy, however, and pushed the small craft more than 100 miles off course. Father Baraga calmed the fears of his guide as they traversed the rough waters, and they landed at the mouth of what is now the Cross River, a name bestowed in honor of the small wooden cross Father Baraga and his guide erected shortly after their landing. The river lies within the boundaries of Temperance River State Park, a park that had 303,000 visitors in 2017, according to the Minnesota Department of Tourism.

The original cross was made out of tree branches, and was replaced in the 1950s by a granite cross erected by the Council of Catholic Women from the Diocese of Duluth. That cross still stands today, having been moved a short distance from its original spot to property owned by the diocese.

The cross is easy to get to, located just down the road from the river’s mouth. For those looking for additional historical information, there’s the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder. Its director, Erik Simula, has spent all of his 54 years living and working within sight of Lake Superior, starting in Duluth where he was born. He is well versed in the area’s history, including Father Baraga, who later became the first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan.

Simula thinks a visit to the simple stone monument is well worth it, providing an opportunity to see a slice of history that includes a poignant example of how the Catholic Church tried to minister to and develop relationships with native people of the region.

“The fact that the Cross River was renamed (from its original Ojibwe name) talks to the legend of that crossing of the lake by Father Baraga and placing a cross there,” Simula said. “I think the Catholic priests at the time were usually well received by the native people, at least in this area.”

Father Baraga spent much of his time building relationships with the Ojibwe of the region, and walked many miles throughout the year to make visits, even during the winter. He was known by some as the “snowshoe priest” and he endeared himself to the Ojibwe and even learned their language.

His legacy — and sainthood cause — is carried on by the Bishop Baraga Association in the Diocese of Marquette. His life story is told on the association’s website, and its director, Lenora McKeen, expressed certainty about his future canonization. He was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a saint,” McKeen said. “It’s a matter of the Church recognizing that, because we hear constantly of people who pray to Baraga for intercession, and they believe they received a healing or some kind of guidance or divine providence. He was such a saintly man so devoted to his faith that he can be an anchor for us, and we need that.”

Bishop Baraga was born in 1797 in Slovenia and came to the U.S. in 1830, seven years after having been ordained a priest in his home country. He spent the next 37 years ministering to Native Americans in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He suffered a stroke in 1866 and died two years later. It was his love of the indigenous people that drove him to paddle through a storm to reach them, McKeen said.

“Should we have found ourselves in a situation similar to Baraga’s, chances are most of us would have turned around and gone back because it wasn’t safe,” McKeen said. “But he knew that going back meant he was not going to be able to reach the people that he knew needed him. And, he was willing to put his life on the line day after day to minister and bring the Gospel to the Native Americans, to the miners, to the fur traders, to everybody in the Upper Peninsula, Minnesota, the Great Lakes region, because it was that important. Like his motto said: Only one thing is necessary, and that is to know, love and serve God. And, he did that well.”

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