Father Richard Baker, M.M.

The man who works miracles!

baker1The occasion was a ceremony to hand over an expensive generator that Father Baker had procured so the community could pump water from a new well and supply the entire town of 4,000 inhabitants with abundant, fresh drinking water.  To many, this seemed like a miracle.

"Father Richard is an extraordinary person," says Father Abebe Teklamariam, a priest of Ethiopia's Ge'ez-rite Catholic Church, who is the diocesan coordinator of development projects for the region.  "So many very sick people would have died had he not been there to help. He sends them for treatment, which he pays for, bringing them with his own car to the hospital in emergency cases. What amazes me most about him is his endurance.  He can live and eat with the people and sleep anywhere.  This makes him really special."


Father Baker, 72, went to the remote region of Benishangul-Gumuz and the town of Debate because the needs were so great in this impoverished and neglected area.  His time there follows nine years in Gambela in southern Ethiopia, where he worked with Sudanese refugees.  He has also served in Sudan, Tanzania and Indonesia, learning several languages in the process.


The missioner started his work in Debate by constructing a hostel for children of the Gumuz tribe, baker2who live about eight miles away and find it difficult to attend school because they have to walk each way.  The only schools for miles around are in Debate.  The children stay at the hostel weekday nights in order to go to school and return to their villages on weekends. Water was needed for the hostel, so initially Father Baker planned a small water system to supply it.  He expanded that to serve the entire town since the cost was not too much more. He also built classrooms for informal education, a library for the community, a computer room (10 computers were to be delivered soon) and a small residence for himself and his successor.


His right-hand man for the water project is 45-year-old Haile Tadele, who has a degree in urban planning and training in irrigation and electrical engineering. Tadele volunteers his expertise in order to help his community.  Father Baker obtained funds through Maryknoll and the local Catholic Church to purchase the generator and a submersible pump and 2.5 miles of three-inch pipe that will bring the water to a series of collection points throughout the town.  Community members will do the actual labor of burying the pipe and will also build housing for the generator.


"This project can completely alleviate the water problem here," says Tadele, adding that the town's previous water system was inadequate, diminishing and would run out in the dry season from November to May.  He says people often quarrel as they wait in long lines with their plastic jerrycans.  Some get up in the middle of the night for water.  "Once in place, the new system will have a good yield of 9.5 liters (2.5 gallons) per second and the water table will be adequate for at least 20 years," Tadele says.


baker3As the water system is being brought to his center, Father Baker lives in the small town of Chagni about two hours away.  He stays at a local guesthouse where his 10-by-10-foot room costs $1.50 a night.  It is piled high with boxes of possessions.  He uses an electric coil to heat a bucket of water for his daily bath.  His only luxuries are his laptop, which holds an enormous collection of e-books on topics ranging from history to theology, and his Kindle.  The missioner transfers these cyber-tomes onto his Kindle to read at night.  He has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and a love of 1960s and 1970s pop music.  He says he lives better now than he did as a child.


"I grew up in Yonkers, New York, of Sicilian and Slovak descent.  With an older sister, we lived in a three-room, cold water flat and would go on Saturdays to a public bathhouse for a shower," he says.  "We'd have to dress around the stove in winter because it was so cold."


He attended Catholic school, and as an altar boy who lived near the church he was "always on call" for weddings, funerals and Sundays. "I was immersed," he says.  His family, which he says was not overly religious, was not very supportive of his budding vocation.  "They were not pleased about me becoming a priest," he says.  "My father was a bookie in Yonkers. Being a bookie was illegal in those days.  Imagine the scandal if he got arrested and put in jail, and his son in the seminary!"  He says it was Maryknoll magazine that first got him excited about mission, the priesthood and the adventure of being overseas.


Wherever Father Baker sets foot these days his reputation for being heaven sent takes root.  Even in his temporary home of Chagni he has set up a feeding center for about 40 local boys he found living on the street and going hungry.


"What's behind it is my desire to see children be able to get an education, and it is difficult to get an education if you have to spend most of your day looking for food," he says.  "Young people can't study when they are hungry; they just fall asleep in class."


The missioner admits he finds it hard to say "no" and has helped many people with serious health illnesses, baker4particularly cancer, personally driving some patients to the hospital in Addis Ababa and paying for treatment out of an inheritance that is fast running out.  His dreams for the town include a kindergarten and a health clinic, perhaps staffed with Catholic Sisters.  The needs, he says, are endless.


Being the only Roman Catholic for miles around has not been a problem for Father Baker.  He celebrates Mass on Sundays with four Latin American Carmelite Sisters four hours away.  His many friends among the local people are mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, Muslim or followers of traditional indigenous beliefs.  All generally live harmoniously side-by-side.  When friends are not around, the priest relishes the contemplative isolation, and admits that he finds his own "church" in God's great outdoors.


As a young missionary in Tanzania, Father Baker says, he did "frontline evangelization," directly preaching and converting, but as an older, wiser man in Ethiopia, he has altered his approach.


"The Gospel is not just something to do with doctrine but is being involved in people's lives in different ways, especially those people who are marginalized or are having difficulty getting the basics in life," he says.


"I preach the Gospel in a way which is without many words.  My hope is that when people see what we do as the Catholic Church, they themselves will do similarly.  If the influence of the Church here can make the community help each other more, then I think the Gospel has been preached!"

Since the publication of this article, Father Baker has returned to the United States and is retired in State College. PA.