by Jim Baehler
The Catholic Parish of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini has a new priest, Richard Baker, who brings an unusual background and a different approach to the task.
Fr. Baker is a native of the New York area, having grown up in Rockland County. His father, a non-denominational Briton, was baptized in a Methodist church in order to satisfy the church-affiliation requirements of his bride-to-be and her family. Fr. Baker himself was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church of his mother and, from the age of five, determined to be a priest.
“I fell in love with the services I heard every Sunday. I decided early on that I wanted to be part of the Church. I was comfortable around priests because some of them had married into my family. I especially enjoyed the music, and I used to attend a Lutheran Church with my cousin, Donald Baker, to hear the organ music. Coincidentally, Donald is now the pastor of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church on East 79th Street in Manhattan.”
With his intense interest in religious activities, Richard Baker did not have the usual childhood of playgrounds, parties, and escapades. “I was comfortable around older people, [with] whom I spent most of my time.” At the age of 12, he began attending services at a nearby Roman Catholic Church, and started taking organ instruction at the age of 14. “At 17, I became an official Roman Catholic by reciting and accepting the Nicene Creed, a Christian statement of faith, in front of a priest.”
After graduating from Nanuet High School, he attended a community college for one year. “I left to enroll at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Riverdale. I finished my undergraduate work at St. John’s University in Queens, where I earned a B.A. in history. I then enrolled in the graduate program at St. Joseph’s Seminary, where I earned a master’s degree. I was ordained a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in May of 1990.”
Fr. Baker’s first assignment was at St. Philip Neri Church on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. “I was a bit nervous before I was to serve Mass for the first time, but then I thought, I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, and, suddenly, all my apprehension disappeared.”
Fr. Baker spent five years at St. Philip Neri Church. “I loved every minute of it, but at that time I was not really an organist. I could play the organ for the hymns that were sung, but I was not an organist in the sense of knowing exactly how an organ works and how to do more with it than play simple melodies. I was fortunate to be sent for further studies in music to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where I learned formal church music and earned a master’s in liturgical music.”
After five years of musical study, Fr. Baker was appointed Professor of Sacred Music at St. Joseph’s College. While at St. Joseph’s, he also served for four and a half years as assistant pastor at St. Eugene’s Church in the Bronx. He then served as Pastor of St. Malachy’s Church at 49th Street and Broadway for 12 years before coming to Roosevelt Island.
Asked what part of parish work gives him the greatest satisfaction, Fr. Baker replied, “God working in the people. By that, I mean experiencing the beauty of God’s presence. It is a wonderful thing to see the presence of God in people and their lives. We are all still human, but God works in us even though we are limited.”
What part of parish work is frustrating? “Seeing people fail to let God into their lives. God will let you have full freedom. God’s commandments don’t bind us or enslave us, they set us free. We are not here for us; we are here for God and for others.”
From the sublime to the practical: a parish priest must live in the world. On Roosevelt Island, that includes finding a new spot for the Thrift Shop. “I can report that the lease has been signed for the second floor at 504 Main Street, and the architects are hard at work designing the most effective use of the space. In addition to the new Thrift Shop, there will be a small apartment so that I and future priests have a place to stay here on the Island. I watch every penny. and I want to know where every penny goes, and whether we are getting maximum value for each penny we spend.
“Our doors are open, and we hope people will come. We are working God’s will, not our will. I am a facilitator, not a rule enforcer. We want to make the church environment as welcoming as possible. None of us are perfect. This is a sinner’s club, not a club of saints.”
As has been well reported in the news, the Catholic Diocese of New York is undergoing some significant changes. One change combines Cabrini parish with that of St. John Nepomucene, a Slovak church on East 66th Street in Manhattan. Fr. Baker is therefore the pastor of both congregations, but has two assistant pastors to help with the work of the churches. In addition, a professor from St. Joseph’s Seminary comes to assist in the Sunday services.
When asked if this means the Baker Boys now control all of Manhattan’s East Side, Father Baker laughed heartily and said, “Absolutely! Donald and I have the East Side all wrapped up.” On that cheerful note, Fr. Baker had to excuse himself to conduct the Wednesday Morning Mass for his parishioners on Roosevelt Island.