Father Baer remembered for preaching, conviction, focused faith

| January 19, 2018 | 2 Comments

Father William Baer incenses the altar during Mass in this undated photo. Father Baer died Jan. 14. Courtesy St. John Vianney

As soon as Transfiguration in Oakdale announced the unexpected death of its pastor Father William Baer Jan. 14, warm tributes began to pour in.

They came from parishioners, colleagues, friends and former seminarians who remembered him as their rector. Many said he had a significant impact on their faith, and several priests connected their vocations to his influence.

“The first minute I heard a Father Baer homily for the first time I was motivated to be a better Catholic,” Lisa Schoen wrote on Transfiguration’s Facebook page. Another commentator, Leslie Lynn, wrote, “I am just so heartbroken — he meant so much to our family. … What a great man, priest, friend.”

Transfiguration staff members found Father Baer, 60, dead in his rectory when he didn’t show up for the 8:30 a.m. Mass at the church. It was clear to them that he had died while going about his morning routine.

“It appears that [his death] was peaceful and relatively quick,” said Erin Ethier, Transfiguration’s parish administrator and, with her husband, a close friend of Father Baer.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda blessed Father Baer’s body before it was taken from the rectory, a fact that has brought peace to many Transfiguration parishioners, Ethier noted.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated 10 a.m. Jan. 23 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Visitation will be at Transfiguration 4-8 p.m. Jan. 22, followed by an all-night vigil until 7 a.m. Jan. 23. Burial will take place in Baltimore.

‘A natural leader’

Born in Baltimore May 25, 1957, to Raymond and Frances Baer, Father Baer studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and returned to his hometown to practice architecture. He volunteered in campus ministry at Loyola College — now Loyola University Maryland — because it was near his work. He began attending daily Mass at the campus’ chapel, and he said that those Masses instilled a love for liturgy and preaching.

In 1984, Father Baer moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to work in campus ministry and join Servants of the Word, an ecumenical lay brotherhood rooted in the charismatic renewal. There he felt called to priesthood, but he also felt called to live in community.

Father Baer preaches in this undated photo. Courtesy SJV

His work with youths and evangelization had connected him to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, then an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, invited him to consider the Companions of Christ, then a fledgling group of priests and seminarians of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis living in community. He joined the companions and entered the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in 1992 to study for the archdiocese.

Right away, Father Baer’s classmates saw powerful gifts in a man some felt might be named a bishop someday.

“He was a natural leader within our class,” said Father Thomas Wilson, pastor of All Saints in Lakeville who was in Father Baer’s ordination class and also served as vocations director while Father Baer was rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Father Wilson remembered how Father Baer galvanized the class almost instantly.

During their first year in seminary, a professor intimidated the men in the class with a list of possible questions for the final exam — 100 in all.

“It was going to be an impossible task for us to do it individually,” Father Wilson said. “He [Father Baer] was able, in a very, very brief period of time, to organize us all and divide up the questions and have us come together and review the questions together in a way that was efficient and had us all well prepared for that exam. It was really something else. I consider myself pretty efficient, and he made me look like a sloth.”

But, another classmate saw a lighter side, which emerged before they even started classes together.

“We hung out a lot together,” said Father Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Edina. “I remember picking him up at the airport as he’s coming here to go to seminary. The first thing he wanted to do was go to the Mall of America, which he loved. He thought it was great. It couldn’t be too big or too flashy. In some ways, that was his personality — big, flashy, and nothing could be too much. He loved pressing everything forward, which was a great thing.”

Home away from home

Father Baer was ordained in 1996 on his 39th birthday.

“I’m glad to become a priest this late in life,” he told The Catholic Spirit in a 1996 interview. “I have assurance I wouldn’t have had 10 years ago.”

He was assigned to Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul as an assistant pastor. Four months into that role, he told The Catholic Spirit that those months “have been the best four months of my life.”

His enthusiasm for his vocation — and priesthood in general — was unwavering. He became Nativity’s parochial administrator in 1998.

Nativity parishioners Katie and Dan Donovan became friends with Father Baer while he was at the parish. Katie’s mother, Helen Domler, worked at the parish then and had an office across the hall from him. Because Father Baer’s family was in Baltimore, he would join theirs on holidays.

“His first Christmas he spent with us in 1996 — he always talks about it, it was 30 below zero — and he’s sitting at our house listening to the stucco literally cracking on the outside of the house. So, he just kind of became part of our family from there on out, for holidays and funerals and weddings, and a lot of baptisms,” recalled Katie, 60, whose three siblings are also lifelong Nativity parishioners and were close to Father Baer.

Father Baer would visit their cabin in Orr, where, coincidentally, the last two priests assigned to its Catholic church studied at St. John Vianney while he served as its rector from 1999 to 2010.

“He was involved with the faith formation of all these young men, it was just astounding,” she said. “When he got to the seminary, I don’t know what he did, but he somehow had the magic touch that drew people in. [SJV] was bursting at the seams by the time he left. … He truly was a shepherd of a big flock.”

Calling him a “wonderful homilist” and “one of the most intelligent people” she’s ever known, Katie also noted how he could be a prankster. One Easter, he had someone tape pieces of candy under all the chairs and hinted to the congregation after Mass to look carefully, until a child discovered the candy and soon the entire parish began turning over their chairs.

What’s more, she said, was the solace he provided when her mother was dying from lung cancer at age 73.

“He was pretty instrumental in helping us understand that,” she said.

‘Be men for Christ’

When he was assigned to replace now-Bishop Peter Christiansen of Boise as rector of SJV, he observed that he was taking the helm as college seminaries were “making a comeback,” and said he hoped to “help the men get a good foundation in their spiritual life and in basic character, so whatever the future holds, they will have the tools they need to live the Christian call well.”

When he arrived, there were 90 students from 22 dioceses. Of them, 23 of the men were from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. SJV’s enrollment dipped to 70 in 2001, but by 2007 there were 154 men from 28 dioceses under Father Baer’s wing, including 35 from the archdiocese. The seminary had to increase its housing and staff. Father Baer, however, realized that not all of the men would become priests, and he was OK with that.

“The No. 1 reason why we’re growing is that more and more and more young Catholics and their parents and bishops are recognizing that the Church needs men who are strong in their Catholic faith and character in the world of business, family life and parish life,” Father Baer told The Catholic Spirit in 2007.

Father Baer laughs with Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, rector of the St. Paul Seminary, following the annual Rectors’ Bowl in this undated photo. Courtesy SJV

He was a staunch advocate for the men developing lives rooted in the Eucharist, prayer and confession. He was known for telling the seminarians to “be men of Christ, men of the Church and men for others.” He also took that message to the University of St. Thomas campus, welcoming students to the seminary’s “Last Chance Mass” on Sunday nights and leading a Thursday night group for non-seminarian men.

Father Nick Nelson, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth, attended SJV from 2007-2009. He said that it can be easy for Catholics to develop a caricature of holiness that is meek, quiet and kind, but Father Baer showed them that “there are other kinds of holiness,” he said.

“He was someone who wanted to lead, and people wanted to follow his lead,” said Father Nelson, 34. “He wasn’t afraid to challenge and to lead guys and to do what’s right, and that was something that guys really clung to or were attracted to ­— that kind of leadership, authenticity in him.”

When Father Nelson was ordained in 2013, Father Baer vested him during the Mass, an honor reserved for a significant priest in an ordinand’s life. Before he met Father Baer, he said, he didn’t have a particular priest he looked up to. But that changed when he got to know his rector.

“When I got to seminary, I just saw what a priest can and should be,” he said. “Part of my formation wasn’t just being taught what to do, but being able to see Father Baer, as a priest, model that and to want to imitate that. He was one of the most powerful formation tools for me.”

‘An incredible teacher’

In 2010, Father Baer left the seminary to serve in the chancery as a chaplain in the Office of Marriage, Family and Life. The following year, he was assigned to be the pastor of Transfiguration in Oakdale.

Ethier got to know him first as chairwoman of Transfiguration’s school board, then as a parish trustee before becoming the parish administrator.

“He was an incredible shepherd first,” she said. “He was extremely hard working. … He was a true friend and was an incredible pastor to the people.”

His homilies were renowned because of his ability to convey the Gospel in a way that everyone understood, Ethier said. He also spoke without notes, outlining everything in his head.

“He was just an incredible teacher,” she said, noting that as a mother, she watched her teenage boys absorb his homilies and often talk about them later in the week.

Father Baer shares a laugh with a young woman at the Cathedral of St. Paul in this undated photo. Courtesy SJV

One of Father Baer’s three sisters, Jane Reynolds, describes how, despite the miles between them, he remained involved in their family’s sacramental life, performing baptisms, weddings and the funeral rites of his father in 2011 and 18-year-old niece in 2003. Father Baer had eight nephews, two of whom are Reynolds’ sons, and five nieces, including Julie McDermott, who died. He also had several great-nephews and nieces. Each day at around 7:15 a.m., he would call his mother, who lives in the Baltimore area.

Reynolds, 68, recalled the times Father Baer, as rector of SJV, would bring students to Louisiana, where she lives, for a week to do service projects at parishes and schools, even contributing to recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During his visits to the New Orleans area, he would also dedicate a day to be alongside her at Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell, where she served as assistant principal.

“It was very moving for me to at least have a one-day glimpse each year of his work and gifts as a priest,” said Reynolds, now retired, “because his gifts were his homilies and his interactions with students. The students still today remember his sermons from when he visited years ago.”

Reynolds said that as a priest, Father Baer was committed to leading others to love the Lord and sharing his devotion to Jesus and Mary.

“He was a happy priest. He loved being a priest,” Reynolds said. “He loved being a Catholic and constantly brought that into his sermons: Be proud to be a Catholic, be proud to know your faith, be proud to know your God.”

Father Baer also kept track of how many sacraments he administered, including confessions. Transfiguration staff thinks his confessions heard numbered well over 40,000.

“Every so often, he would tell someone, ‘You’re my thousandth, you’re my two-thousandth, I left a little gift for you in the back [of the church],’” Reynolds said, adding that the gift would usually be a prayer card or rosary.

“As much as we’re all heartbroken right now, we really believe the fruits of his labors will be felt by all he came in contact with for many years and generations to come,” Reynolds said. “We take comfort in that.”

Emphasis on sacraments

Father Baer had big ideas and high expectations. At Transfiguration, his emphasis was on sacraments, youths and finances, Ethier said. He made sure that there was daily Mass and confessions, which “he brought back in a big way,” Ethier said. He prioritized efforts that helped to keep youths in the Church, and helped the parish pay off about $1 million in debt.

Father Baer also led a redesign of the parish’s sanctuary that included a mural and new statues. It was dedicated in 2016 on the weekend he celebrated his 20th anniversary of ordination. Among his final additions to the church was a print of Raphael’s Transfiguration, which was made possible by a donor.

From 2012 to 2015, Father Baer served as chaplain of Hill-Murray School in nearby Maplewood.

A frequent speaker — especially at men’s events — he was known for a bold, intense style that many found convicting and motivating, often drawing on imagery of the Christian life as a battle and adventure. As pastor of Transfiguration, he paid special attention to families, and he began a monthly blessing for parents who were expecting children and for couples who hoped to conceive. He was known to high-five youths following Mass.

Ethier attended what would be Father Baer’s final Mass the evening of Jan. 13, and his homily has stuck with her.

“He spoke about how God puts people in your path for a reason, you might not like them, but God put them there, don’t forget that, and don’t forget they come and go,” she said.

Those words took on a new context for her after his death.

“In so many ways, he lived every day, he went to bed every night, just ready to meet the Lord because he put everything he had into that 24 hours that he could for the Lord,” she said. “In some ways he was preparing us all. Now it’s up to us — whether at Transfiguration or those wonderful young men he prepared for priesthood — to live out what God is calling us to do.”

— Dave Hrbacek and Jessica Trygstad contributed to this story

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