Haunted House Leads to Conversion

(This story is recorded in John Gilmary Shea’s New History of the Catholic Church in the United States., pg. 187, and retold here in our own words.)

THE LAST THING a Ger­man Lutheran family by the name of Livingston expected to be confronted with when they moved to the American wilderness was a ghost. Undoubtedly, the Livingstons would have preferred wild bears or Indians – at least then they could see their foe. But, nevertheless, it was a ghost they had to contend with; and the story is so extraordinary and well documented that we thought it worth sharing.

This unexpected and unseen guest of these poor frontier folk tried rather desperately to scare the Livingstons out of their wits and drive them off their property. He succeeded for a while in the first objective, but failed to uproot them. The invisible visitor (whether it was a wicked angel or a human soul in hell is not known) started his rampage by breaking all their furniture, cutting up the father’s clothes in a most curious manner, then setting fire to his barns and killing all his cattle. God did not allow the spirit to physically harm anyone in the family.

Several Bible-carrying Protes­tant divines offered to deliver the house of the strange intruder. One minister flew out the door when a rock lifted itself out of the fireplace and danced and whirled around for some time in the air. Another religious man, an Anglican, saw his Book of Com­mon Prayer, which he was using to conjure the spirit, unceremoni­ously thrust into a place of con­tempt. No one was able to relieve these dismayed Lutherans until, at last, Mr. Livingston had a dream in which he saw a Catholic church and heard a voice telling him distinctly that the priest he was contemplating in that church would relieve him. Encouraged by the dream (or vision), his wife per­suaded him to send for the nearest Catholic priest. The Rev. Cahill was reluctant at first to come (con­frontations with demons demands a certain degree of holiness, not to mention courage), but he finally did come, and after he sprinkled the house with holy water, the noise and obsession ceased completely.

That is not the end of the story. Livingston sometime afterwards visited a Catholic church in Shepherdstown, and recognizing the celebrant of the Mass as the very same priest he had seen in his dream, he at last renounced his heresy and he and his family resolved to become Catholics. More wonderful still, while Rev. Cahill often gave the Livingstons lessons in catechism after saying Mass in their house, another in­structor, a voice from heaven (perhaps one of their Guardian Angels), explained for them at length the sacraments of the Church, prayed with them, and frequently exhorted them to more prayer and works of penance. As a result, this family became very proficient in their knowledge of the faith, which never ceased to amaze everyone, because they were by nature very ignorant and difficult to teach, due to their limited knowledge of English and a complete absence of Catholic books. The voice that instructed them spoke to them in their native German.

Many other priests investi­gated these occurrences and were fully convinced of their authenticity. The voice, which had instructed the Livingstons, con­tinued to guide them for seven­teen years, and they were also rewarded occasionally with an ap­parition, although exactly who it was who appeared to them is not known. Some theologians who had studied the case ascribed the visits to a suffering soul in purgatory. Neither did conver­sions cease with the Livingstons; many Protestant neighbors were also brought to a knowledge of the true Faith and, in one winter, fourteen were received into the Church. Many Catholics, too, were converted or brought to greater holiness by these preter­natural phenomena.

A full account of these occur­rences was drawn up by the il­lustrious priest, Prince Demitrius Gallitzin, whose story will appear in the next issue of the Housetops. He traveled to West Virginia in 1797 and spent three months personal­ly interviewing the Livingstons:

“My view in coming to Virginia,” he said, “and remain­ing there three months, was to investigate those extraordinary facts of which I had heard so much, and which I could not prevail upon myself to believe; but I was soon converted to a full belief of them. No lawyer in a court of justice ever did examine or cross-examine witnesses more strictly than I did all the witnesses I could procure. I spent several days in penning down the whole account.” *

*See Letters of Prince Gallitzin in the St. Louis Leader for Dec. 1, 1855.