Northlandia: 'Snowshoe Priest' crossed Lake Superior in canoe — and may become saint

A stone cross on the North Shore marks the seemingly miraculous success of a perilous journey for Frederic Baraga, a Slovenian missionary who traversed the Upper Midwest in the 19th century.

Woman points towards the lake.
Heidi Swalve points across Lake Superior on April 11 as she tells the tale of Father Baraga crossing during a storm in a canoe in 1846 near the Baraga Cross in Schroeder.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

SCHROEDER — Heidi Swalve made a round-trip drive of several hours just to tell a reporter about Frederic Baraga. But wait, there's more.

Curtis Chambers has snowshoed over 1,000 miles along routes traversed on foot by the 19th century missionary. Chambers said that's just "a little bit ... nothing, compared to what he did."

A granite cross on the North Shore marks the conclusion of a harrowing journey by canoe across Lake Superior. Baraga and his companion survived due to what the faithful believe may have been divine intervention.

"This is a place that Father Baraga actually came to in 1846. He came from Madeline Island," explained Swalve, standing beside the cross. "He came here to be able to help the Ojibwe."

Swalve is the creator of, one of many sites celebrating the achievements of the Slovenian American cleric who's gone down in history as the Upper Midwest's "Snowshoe Priest." The itinerant Baraga covered a lot of ground in his missionary pursuits.


"Pretty much half of the (Lake Superior Circle Tour), you'll find spots that Father Baraga was a participant in," said Swalve. "To be able to go around Lake Superior and to establish the number of missions that he did is not a small feat."

The Minnesota monument is a permanent version of a wooden cross that Baraga himself erected upon successfully reaching the North Shore. Positioned on a promontory overlooking the mouth of the Cross River — which takes its name from the incident — the cross is a dignified but modest marker, dwarfed by a far larger shrine on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Baraga Cross.
The Baraga Cross is placed along the shore of Lake Superior in Schroeder.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Michigan, where Baraga served as the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Marquette (originally situated at Sault Sainte Marie), is home to the Bishop Baraga Association. It's the official organization working to advance Baraga toward being officially canonized as a saint. Lenora McKeen, executive director of the association, refers to her work as "the cause."

Vintage photograph of white man in priestly garb, sitting and looking stern while holding a book. He has dark hair, curled up near his ears.
Father Frederic Baraga, photographed by Mathew Brady circa the 1850s. Baraga holds a copy of his Ojibwe dictionary.
Contributed / Library of Congress

"Baraga was declared 'venerable' in May of 2012," McKeen explained. "That means there's evidence to support his heroic virtues ... and people can pray to him privately."

For Baraga to advance the next two steps, to beatification and ultimately canonization, the Bishop Baraga Association must document two miracles attributed to his intercession. Another factor the Vatican considers, said McKeen, is whether a candidate for sainthood has popular support. Baraga (typically pronounced "BEAR-a-ga") seems to have that covered.

"We have strong support from Slovenia" and from Slovenian American communities, said McKeen. "We have a strong (contingent) of elders from the Native American groups."

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Two recent documentaries on the Catholic cable channel EWTN have sparked further interest. "I get frequent phone calls about, 'I saw the documentary and I started praying,'" said McKeen.

Chambers is a practicing Catholic. He's also a member and former chairman of the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. "I was raised in the Catholic religion," said Chambers. "I also was brought up with Native culture. It's a big part of our life, and I find that ... it's almost like Catholicism is a natural progression of Native spirituality. For me, the two fit together so nicely."


Woman looks at cross.
Heidi Swalve pauses and looks up at the Baraga Cross.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Some members of Native communities, Chambers and McKeen acknowledged, point to Baraga's status as a European missionary and aren't inclined to celebrate his legacy. "I say, before you criticize him, understand where he came from and why he did what he did," said Chambers. "It was absolutely zero profit for him."

Baraga learned the Ojibwe language, among several others, and composed dozens of hymns in that language. "Everybody else would try to teach the Natives English and then teach their particular religions," said Chambers. "Baraga not only learned the language, but the culture."

Chambers said he "felt called" to literally walk in Baraga's footsteps, which he's done during numerous winters. "It's deeply personal. The tribes along the way are incredibly welcoming."

His journeys create opportunities to spread the word about Baraga, said Chambers. "He could have had a wonderful, fulfilling life without the hardships of ... the North. And he gave that all up, just to spread the word of God."

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The North Shore cross is something of a roadside attraction. Curious travelers who see the Baraga Cross sign and turn off Minnesota Highway 61 find a small wayside rest, with a parking lot and a short path leading to the cross. The cross is featured on Atlas Obscura and Roadside America, which highlight the surprising story behind the priest's "boat miracle."

The story of Baraga's Lake Superior crossing, as explained on a Knights of Columbus plaque, is that the priest and an Ojibwe man named Louis Goudin set out to paddle from the Apostle Islands to the North Shore after "learning of a possible epidemic" in Grand Portage. "An unexpected storm threatened them but their lives were spared when they were blown over the sandbar and into the quiet mouth of the Cross River."

Plaque on cross.
A plaque is mounted to the Baraga Cross along the shore of Lake Superior in Schroeder.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Swalve, who says she's "done a lot of research on Father Baraga," hasn't found any independent evidence to either substantiate or disprove the account of an epidemic. Regardless of the health situation, she pointed out, the journey took place just four years after one of the major treaties ceding Ojibwe land to the U.S. government. According to Chambers and Swalve, Baraga was instrumental in helping Ojibwe communities across the region resist relocation.

"Baraga was also an attorney, so he was familiar with how laws work," said Chambers. "He just dedicated his life, his whole life. The man died absolutely penniless. He gave his last 20 bucks away to a teacher of a school in Marquette."


The priest lived from 1797 to 1868. His remains are interred in the Baraga Chapel of St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette. The Bishop Baraga Association maintains an educational center and museum in the same city. There's also an annual Baraga Days celebration, and merchandise including a " Venerable Frederic Baraga" T-shirt ($5) with an illustration of snowshoes sticking out of the Upper Peninsula.

Several places are named for Baraga, mostly in Michigan, although there's also a Baraga Street near the Catholic church on Madeline Island. Baraga co-established a mission in Grand Portage in the 1830s; it was that mission he was trying to reach with his fateful canoe trip. The Schroeder cross has become "a pilgrimage destination" for the faithful, said McKeen.

Chambers, meanwhile, is continuing his pilgrimage in motion. "It's so humbling to think that I get just a small fraction of what Baraga actually did," said the man who walks in the steps of the Snowshoe Priest.

Postcard aerial scene of Duluth
This is Northlandia: a place to bring your curiosity, because you will find curiosities. In this series, the News Tribune celebrates the region's distinctive people, places and history. Discover the extraordinary stories that you just might miss if you're not in the right place, at the right time, ready to step off the beaten path with no rush to return.
Adelie Bergstrom / Duluth News Tribune

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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