This profile of Msgr. Urban Baer was written by Fr. Ed Bertz for the La Crosse Diocese’s Catholic Times-Review sometime between 1963 and 1967.
Though he had stood in the same sanctuary every Sunday for the past 15 years, it was different this time. He was speaking to his flock for the last time. “By golly, I want to thank all you wonderful people for your cooperation.” His legs felt weak. He clutched the pulpit tighter. Monsignor Urban Baer, pastor of St. Wenceslaus parish in Eastman, continued. “We have seen bad times and good times together. But God has been good to us.” The vigor of 15 years ago was gone — “My ‘ticker’ isn’t what it used to be” — but never had the congregation listened so closely. “You could hear a pin drop,” someone said. Even though the word had gone around that “Monsignor was going to retire,” no one wanted to accept that fact that the “priest who never said an unkind word to anyone” was going to leave them.
He was born on December 8, 1903, in Marshfield, son of Peter and Mary Baer. He loved to romp and play with his five brothers and one sister but he felt God was calling him to the priesthood, and left St. John’s grade school for St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary (Wis.) after the eighth grade. Seven years later, he entered Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis for his four-year theological studies and was ordained on June 9, 1929, by the famous Archbishop John Glennon (later a cardinal.) His first assignment was as assistant pastor at Holy Rosary parish, Darlington. One year later he became assistant at Sacred Heart parish in Eau Claire.
Then came an assignment that was to have a lasting effect on Father Baer’s ministry. He was named pastor of St. John the Baptist parish in Wuerzburg and its mission, St. Thomas in Milan, just as the stock market crash of 1929 was having its effect on the rural economy. It was the beginning of a rash of farm foreclosures. “Farmers just didn’t know where to turn.” Father Baer didn’t throw up his arms in despair. Remembering the words of Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul — “The priest’s place is also in the world if the world is to be won for Christ.” — he decided to do something. He studied the farm problem and sought advice from a priest who was doing something about rural economy “long before me.” Father Joseph Steinhauser was “dean of Catholic Rural life leaders,” Monsignor Baer says, adding that “I was only a young whippersnapper, cutting my eye teeth at that time.” A fast and true friendship grew between the two priests and still exists today
But what can two priests do for such a complex problem with a multitude of causes? They did a lot. First of all, the farm foreclosures had to be stopped. Monsignor Baer promoted cooperatives and credit unions. Gradually the tide began to turn even though the two priests came under heavy fire because some thought their remedy too socialistic. Secondly, they preached and they wrote on the Christian principles involved in the farm movement. What Christian principles? “The land is man’s greatest material (that word is important) gift from God.” They reminded farmers of the responsibility of Christian stewardship of the soil and the Christian dignity of a farmer’s calling. These two things have tremendous ramifications. Finally, they promoted the family-size farm.
Monsignor believes that though farmers are leaving the land at an alarming rate and existing farms growing larger, the family-size farm is not a lost cause even today. “There will always be the family-size farm. Lord, save us if we don’t.” He expressed dismay at what he calls “factories in the field” — large farm corporations.
[The eight paragraphs omitted here may be read from the original article, posted in a frame in our parish hall along with other articles about Msgr. Baer.]
Then in August of 1950, [Father Baer] was appointed pastor at Eastman. Among the myriad achievements here was the construction of one of the first catechetical centers in the diocese. He was named a diocesan consulter in 1953. Pope Pius XII named him a domestic prelate [monsignor] in 1956.
He still thinks about that Sunday he said goodbye to his flock at Eastman. He’s only 12 miles away, now, living in a small house (1206 South 6th St.) in Prairie du Chien which sprawls along the Mississippi River just “down the hill” from Eastman. But the grey, balding man with “the world’s most affable disposition” hardly has time for daydreams or nostalgic reveries. He’s up early enough to celebrate Mass at 8 a.m. in a beautiful but tiny chapel. By special privilege of the bishop, he may sit down and rest at times during Mass, as the early sun floods through the east window. His day is an active one.
Besides talking to a steady stream of visitors and answering correspondence, he is gathering materials for still another book. “Good gravy, I’ve almost got all of the material for it already.” What’s the book going to be about? “The priest and his role in the community,” Monsignor answers in serious tone. “The priest must be active not only among his own parishioners but with the whole community. He must be concerned for the economic as well as the spiritual welfare of the people. He has to help lead the communities in all ways.” There’s no hollow ring to these thoughts coming from Msgr. Urban Baer, a man who lives his ideals!