Michigan Roadside Attractions: Bishop Frederic Baraga Statue in Grand Rapids
Michigan Roadside Attractions is a periodic feature on Travel the Mitten that will explore the many interesting things that can be found on the highways, byways and back roads of Michigan, ranging from the interesting to unusual.
Bishop Frederic Baraga, the “Snowshoe Priest,” is honored in many places in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A county, village and state park bear his name and many churches have artifacts from his life or were founded by him. In 2012, a statue of Baraga was added to the Grand Rapids Community Legends Project and placed in Cathedral Square downtown. The Bishop Baraga statue is 7.5 feet tall and was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter. It stands in a circular garden facing the Cathedral of St. Andrew, and depicts Baraga carrying a prayer book in one hand while giving a blessing with the other.
A plaque at the base of the statue gives information on Baraga’s life and time in the Grand Rapids area. “Born in Slovenia and educated in Vienna, Baraga was ordained to the priesthood in 1823. A gifted linguist and scholar, he came to the United States in 1830 and became an authority on Odawa and Ojibwa languages. After a brief stay in Cincinnati, he traveled to Michigan and dedicated himself to the American Indian missions and the region of the Upper Midwest. In 1833, Father Baraga came to the Grand River Valley and is seen as the founder of the Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, bringing Catholicism to West Michigan. He opened the Mission of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which became the city’s first Catholic Church and the forerunner to the Cathedral of Saint Andrew. He was consecrated a bishop and appointed vicar apostolic of the Upper Peninsula in 1853. When the vicariate apostolic was established as the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie in 1857, Baraga served as its first bishop until his death in 1868. Among his many accomplishments is the Ojibwa-English dictionary, which is still in use today.”
Another plaque gives some background on the sculptor as well as the Community Legends Project. “Jay Hall Carpenter is a nationally recognized sculptor who worked for 20 years for the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., where he created more than 500 sculptures. His portraits and ecclesiastical works are found across the United States. This sculpture is made possible through the generosity of the Peter F. Secchia family. Their Grand Rapids Community Legends Project was begun in 2008 in honor of individuals who are known to have founded the culture and built our community. The mission is to create sculptures of historical figures from the history of Grand Rapids. Peter F. Secchia was U.S. Ambassador to Italy (1989-1993), a business leader and a close personal friend of President Gerald R. Ford. The Secchia family moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1962 and have always been active in the community.”
The plaza and statue can be found at the intersection of Sheldon Ave SE and Maple St SE in Grand Rapids. Other Community Legends statues honor Lucius Lyon, Lyman Parks Sr., Jay Van Andel, Chief Noonday (Noahquageshik), Helen Claytor, and Stanley Ketchel. Plans call for adding one statue per year.