The unique life, tragic death and legacy of Father Matthew Baker

As a high-school dropout, Matthew Baker worked the graveyard shift at a gas station because he wanted time to read. 

So he read for seven years, digging into philosophy, literature, history and poetry. This helped steer him away from his teen-aged atheism and eventually towards Orthodox Christianity and the priesthood. He never graduated from college. 

But there was marriage and a large family to love. Then a seminary accepted Baker and then another, leading to a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. This led to Fordham University doctoral work in theology, history and philosophy and a dissertation that was nearly done, allowing him to finally be ordained in 2014 and, this January, to move to his first parish. 

Then the 37-year-old Baker died on March 1, when the family minivan crashed off a snowy road after evening prayers at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. His six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- were not seriously injured. His wife Katherine was home, still recovering from a recent miscarriage. 

"This isn't just a tragic story. It's several tragic stories," said Father Andrew Stephen Damick of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., whose family shared a backyard with the Bakers in seminary. "You can write so many headlines on this story and they're all true." 

There's the story of a father who dies after years in near poverty, leaving behind a grieving wife and young family. There's the missing priest and his new parish, left mourning a lost future. There's the loss of a unique intellectual whose works were already being translated into other languages. 

After the funeral, a friend read comments by Metropolitan Zizioulas, a world-famous Orthodox theologian at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Baker's work, he said, had "forced me to answer new questions which I had not thought of before. … We had the one, and we lost him." 

Seraphim Danckaert of the Orthodox Christian Network in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., quickly opened a drive to support Baker's family. Early this week, the total topped $600,000, including gifts from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Princeton Theological Seminary scholar George Hunsinger and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, an Eastern Orthodox convert. Hunsinger worked with Baker on annual conferences about early Christianity and once hailed him as the "most brilliant theologian of his generation I have ever met." 

Baker was "our next great voice," stressed Danckaert. "We expected to rely on his counsel for years, for our children to be taught by him, to read his books and for his mature voice to be one which transcended our own tradition. … The unexpectedly large outpouring of love in the wake of his death is proof that he was already doing that. But so much more has been lost." 

Truth is, this man's approach to life was truly radical in this age of narrow academia niches, stressed Father Eugen Pentiuc of Holy Cross seminary, who knew Baker as a student and as a research colleague. 

"Matthew was crazy about theology, a total idealist about studying theology. … But he wanted to learn history and philosophy and art and everything else," said Pentiuc. "I don't know anyone else who read so much and absorbed so much, so soon. It was going to take him 10 or 15 years to fully synthesize what he knew and to find his mature voice." 

Friends joked that they could say "Go!" and challenge Baker to connect random subjects -- such as "Duran Duran," a rock band, "GMOs," a genetics term, and "Apollinarianism," a 4th Century heresy -- and "he would come up with authentically deep links between them," said Damick. 

It's easy to imagine three or more books emerging from existing lectures, papers and research by Baker, noted Damick. But all the books and academic tributes in the world cannot answer the ultimate questions being asked by loved ones and friends mourning this loss. 

"This is how Father Matthew will now be introduced to the world," said Damick. "Yes, people will read his books. … But rather than a brilliant 50-year academic career, people will hear about him as a Christian, a husband, a father and a priest. His legacy will be all of us who loved him and are determined to keep his legacy alive."