Alumni Association of The Pontifical North American College

Joseph Baker



CLASS 1952, CASA 1959

Msgr. Joseph W. Baker, a well-known canon lawyer and theologian, a “conclavist” who witnessed the election of Pope Paul VI and who accompanied Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter at the Second Vatican Council, died Aug. 18 at Mother of Good Counsel Home in St. Louis. He was 93 years old.

 A private burial will take place, with a memorial Mass to be scheduled in the near future.

Born in St. Louis to Meral C. and Henriette (Heuvelman) Baker on Oct. 27, 1926, he was baptized at Holy Family Church in St. Louis. He attended St. Louis Preparatory Seminary for high school and college, and studied at the North American College in Rome, earning a licentiate in canon law and licentiate in sacred theology. He was ordained in Rome at the North American College on Dec. 8, 1951 by then-Bishop Martin J. O’Connor.

Msgr. Baker served at several parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, including as assistant pastor of St. Ambrose on the Hill and assistant pastor at St. James the Greater in St. Louis. He was appointed part-time religion teacher at Bishop DuBourg High School in 1956. The following year, he went to Rome to pursue graduate studies in canon law.

When he returned, he was named in 1959 as part-time assistant pastor at St. Genevieve du Bois Parish in Warson Woods, and to assist in the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal. In 1961, he was named as resident chaplain of Ursuline Academy and the sisters’ convent in St. Louis.

Cardinal Ritter appointed him to be his theological and canonical expert at the Second Vatican Council, along with Father Nicholas Persich, CM, who was the rector of Kenrick Seminary at the time. Msgr. Baker served as a theological expert for Cardinal Ritter, assisting him for a preparatory session and then for many months during sessions from 1962-65. In an interview in 2012, Msgr. Baker said that Vatican II sought to bring the faith closer to the people, helping them to understand better and see “that we really are truly interested in the eternal salvation of everyone.”

He also accompanied Cardinal Ritter to Rome for the funeral of Pope John XXIII and election of Pope Paul VI in June of 1963. “They take the responsibility seriously,” Msgr. Baker said in a 2013 on witnessing the conclave. “They have different ideas, of course, about who would do the best job for the Church, but it’s their responsibility to vote for the person who they in conscience believe would be the best to lead the Church. … They’re there to do the work of the Church.”

“I got to see parts of Church history and events that are rare and magnificent to see,” Msgr. Baker added. “I know I didn’t deserve this, God was just good to me. It was a wonderful time.”

After his return, he was named Chaplain of His Holiness in 1963, and given the title monsignor; he was named Domestic Prelate in 1967.

In 1964, Msgr. Baker was appointed vice-chairman of the archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism. It was new territory for the Church, and the commission became a model for other ecumenical commissions in the United States. In 1967, he was appointed as vicar for religious in the archdiocese. In 1969, he was named judicial vicar of the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal.

He became pastor of St. Hedwig Parish in St. Louis in 1973, where he remained until his retirement in 2005. That year, Pope Benedict XVI conferred upon him the title Protonotary Apostolic Supernumerary, a high title of distinction. Msgr. Baker was the last surviving Protonotary Apostolic in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

In his retirement, he continued to assist as a judge with the Tribunal of Second Instance (Appellate Tribunal), and he served for several years as one of the editorial writers for the St. Louis Review.

Funeral information is pending.

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