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Salesian Missions Director USA

By Fr. Mike Mendel, SDB

       ANS, and New Rochelle USA 3 January 2023 -- Fr. Augustine Woon Taek Baek, SDB, died at 2:10 p.m. on December 30 at home, the Salesian Provincial Center, in New Rochelle. He was 64 years old and had been a professed Salesian of Don Bosco for 35 years and a priest for 27 years.

       Widely known as Fr. Gus, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2020. The cancer spread in spite of treatment, including several hospitalizations and several forms of chemotherapy. After another Anointing of the Sick by Fr. Provincial on December 26, surrounded by the confreres of the community, Fr. Gus began hospice care.

       Fr. Gus was very much beloved in the Korean community of the New York metro area, whom he had faithfully served for most of his priestly life, and they attended him tenderly in his last months—as did his Salesian confreres.

       Fr Gus Baek was born in Gwangju, South Korea, on September 19, 1958. His parents were Nam-Sik Baek and Kwi-Ja Lee. The family was prosperous as owners of a factory that made coal briquettes at a time when every Korean household used them for cooking and heating. The family included two sons and four daughters. Woon Taek became a Christian as a teenager, baptized with the name Augustine on May 29, 1971, in Gwangju.

       According to Fr. Henry Bonetti, US Salesian missionary serving in Gwangju, during high school Gus was head of the Catholic students’ movement in his school. “This movement was divided into cells, one cell in each school of the city,” Fr. Henry writes. “Also, each parish alone was one cell. There were about 15 parishes and about 30 high school cells. The cells came together and were formed into a Catholic Student’s Union. This was done both on high school and university level. All spiritual as well as social events were run through these ‘unions.’ I guess you could call it something like CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) only much stronger in Korea than the USA. I [Fr. Henry] was in charge of all the middle school, high school and university students in the Diocese of Gwangju at the time (1975-1990). Sometime in the late seventies, Gus was elected head of the High School Student’s Association by his peers. This is no small feat as the organization was very large and well-organized. He distinguished himself during his term of office as a good leader and organizer even from his early days. Even then he had the same character that characterized him as a Salesian, solid in the faith, a good leader and organizer, friendly, not easily provoked to anger, even-tempered, thoughtful, considerate and respectful.”

       The influence of Fr. Henry was the seed of Gus’s Salesian vocation. After high school he completed mandatory military training, then emigrated to the USA, as did most of his family. From there he wrote to Fr. Henry asking advice on what to do as he wanted to become a priest. Fr. Henry referred him to the Salesians’ vocation director. That was enough for Gus always to consider Fr. Henry as the source of his Salesian vocation and his vocational “father,” although he had many spiritual directors and “fathers” after that.

       On August 29, 1984, he entered the Son of Mary program at Don Bosco College Seminary in Newton, N.J., where he was guided in two years of vocational discernment by Fr. Tom Ruekert. He was admitted to St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton on August 24, 1986, and a year later made his first profession as a Salesian (August 25, 1987). The novitiate year began with 11 novices directed by Fr. John Grinsell in his first year as master. Fr. Gus is the only one of the 11 who remained a Salesian. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Don Bosco College in May 1989.

       Gus as a young Salesian did two years of practical training (1989-1991), one as a teacher at Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, La., and one as a teacher and Boys Club staff member at St. Dominic Savio High School in East Boston. Theological studies followed at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio (1991-1995), where he earned an M.A. cum laude in biblical studies. He made his perpetual profession on August 21, 1993, at the Don Bosco Retreat Center in Haverstraw, N.Y., and was ordained in Columbus, Ohio, on May 28, 1995.

       Fr. Gus became an American citizen in 1988.

       Fr. Gus’s first priestly assignment was to the Salesian Boys & Girls Club in East Boston as assistant executive director (1995-1997). He was sent next to Corpus Christi Parish in Port Chester, N.Y. (1997-1999) as assistant pastor and youth minister. Then came five years in the formation community at Orange, N.J. (1999-2004), which included a year as youth minister at St. Andrew Kim Parish in Maplewood, N.J., two years as the Salesian community’s treasurer and two as youth minister at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Orange, and four years as an adjunct professor of theology at Caldwell College (Caldwell, N.J.).

       In 2004 Fr. Gus founded the Reborn Young Christ (RYC) Center for Korean youth ministry in Stony Point, N.J., which he coordinated for 15 years. During that period he traveled extensively in service to Korean-American youths, helped bring Salesians from Korea to minister to youths in both the New York area and the Tampa Bay area. His director for five of those 15 years, Fr. John Puntino, writes: “[Fr.] Gus was always so gracious and conscientious regarding community and Shrine affairs. I observed how revered he was in the Korean community and how pastoral he was especially in caring for young adults.”

       In 2019 the Salesians called upon Fr. Gus to assume leadership at Salesian Missions in New Rochelle, succeeding Fr. Mark Hyde. He began with energy, making several overseas trips as required by the job. The Covid pandemic slowed that down, and then came his diagnosis with stomach cancer. He carried on as best he could, even traveling in the New York area to make mission appeals as late as August 2022.

       Fr. Gus’s administrative assistant, Joann Oliva, said: “I could only add that he was a pleasure to work for and with and to be around, always had a smile on his face. He loved the mission office, and he did so much for all the missionaries. He will truly be missed.”

       During his two years facing his illness, Fr. Gus sometimes got discouraged but at other times was upbeat and hopeful. He acknowledged his pain and the difficulty of having fluid build-up drained from his abdomen, but he didn’t really complain. He was always ready for whatever God was asking of him.

       Fr. Gus is survived by his Salesian brothers and sisters and by his blood sisters Monica Cho of Fairfax, Va.; Soon Ja Baek (Maria) of Seoul, South Korea; and Hyung Hee Baek (Justina) in Seoul; and his brother Hyung Jo Baek (Francis) of Seoul. Another sister, Julia, died recently in Korea.

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