Editor’s Introduction: Somewhere along the line, in this age of aggiornamento (renewal), a good many priests and bishops allowed themselves to be derailed from pursuing the primary objective of their vocations – the salvation of souls. Shepherds too often prefer socializing with their flock rather than nourishing them with sound doctrine, good example, and pious exhortation.
“Well,” we hear it said all the time, “our priests are only human you know,” as if we needed to be enlightened on that point. I think everyone agrees, even us frustrated sticklers to tradition, that our white-collared levites are not impeccable. We know they really are human, although certain dear mothers who gave us our priests might not like to admit it. But we lay folk seem to have an easier time loving God when we see our clergy living as though they were “superhuman,” – which is nothing more than living holily.
The following story is of just such a priest, not a canonized saint, at least yet, but just one of those good old fashioned “superhuman” guys, whose hands we used to kiss with awe and reverence. This is the story of Father Demetrius Gallitzin, a Russian nobleman and convert, who became the great Apostle of the Alleghenies in the early days of our country.
The life of Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin is an edifying one indeed. He was born at The Hague on December 22, 1770, of noble lineage, which would immediately presage an illustrious future for the newborn prince, heir to wealth and nobility. Demetrius’ father, Prince Alexander Gallitzin, was, at the time, the Russian ambassador to Holland. Just prior to this appointment he had been entrusted with the same office at the embassy if Paris. While there, he established intimate relations with the philosophers of Freemasonry, Voltaire and Diderot. Demetrius’ mother, the Princess Amelia, born of a great German family, was the daughter of Countess Ruffert and Marshall Count Schmettau, who was particularly favored by Frederick the Great. She was brought up a pious Catholic, but at the impressionable age of nine her faith was lost through the teachings of an infidel tutor. Her marriage to Prince Alexander helped only to plunge her further into the abyss of atheism, so dazzlingly proclaimed by her husband’s evil mentors in Paris. These influences on Demetrius’ father proved almost fatal to our future missionary. Raised in prejudice, he was shielded from every religious influence to the point of actually despising anything having to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“I lived fifteen years in a Catholic country,” recalls Father Gallitzin, “under a Catholic government, where both the spiritual and temporal powers were united in the same person. During that time I was not a member of the Catholic Church; an intimacy which existed between our family and a certain French philosopher had produced contempt for revealed religion.”
But God in His infinite mercy refused to let the sophistries of Voltaire meddle with the destiny of this great American missionary to be. In 1773 Princess Gallitzin was stricken with a serious illness. Upon her recovery and because of it, she fulfilled a vow to take up the study of Christianity seriously. She remained true to her word, and three years later she received her first Holy Communion. Her remaining days were spent in prayerful regret for her past life, and especially for her neglect of the spiritual edification of her son. Her anxiety over Demetrius’ spiritual welfare is best expressed in a letter that she wrote to him on his fourteenth birthday:
“I am filled with alternate joy and terror on this day. My first thought upon awakening this morning was one of joy and thanksgiving that God had given you to me, perhaps to have brought into this world a great man. . . .‘Today,’ I said to myself, ‘fourteen years have passed for him and, oh God! he is still without will and energy, creeping about under the influence of others.’
“This painful thought brought on another, still more terrible doubt, whether this child, whom I carried under my heart, would be acceptable to God, and eternally blessed, or whether he would continue to run to perdition, in spite of my entreaties, warnings, and prayers. . . .O Mitri, in this expectation, dearest child, I throw myself at the feet of our Creator and cry from the depths of my heart: ‘Have mercy on him and me!'”
These soulful petitions of his mother would have a tremendous impact on Demetrius. He speaks thus of his conversion: “I soon felt convinced of the necessity of investigating the different religious systems, in order to find the true one. Although I was born a member of the Greek Church, and although all my male relations, without exception, were either Greeks or Protestants, yet did I resolve to embrace that religion only, which, upon impartial inquiry, should appear to me to be the pure religion of Jesus Christ. My choice fell upon the Catholic Church. . . .”
What a refreshing thing to read about! Here is a young man of great wealth and dignity, who had been taught throughout his entire life the perverted doctrines of sophists and infidels. Not one of his male acquaintances, “without exception,” was a Catholic. Yet upon “impartial inquiry” he knew that, in order to attain salvation, he would have to be a member of the Catholic Church. How many liberal theologians and priests, after years of study, still cannot, or refuse, to see this foundational truth?
His conversion, however, did not keep Demetrius from entering upon the military career his father had long desired for him. In 1792, at the height of the French Revolution, he became the aide-de-camp to the Austrian general, Van Lilien. But the assassination of the King of Sweden (no doubt the work of the conspiratorial Jacobins), and the sudden death of the Emperor Leopold forced Austria and Prussia to exclude all foreigners from service in their armies. Being one of the many soldiers dismissed, he was advised by his father to continue his studies abroad in the United States. Little did Demetrius realize that his life as an apostle in the Church he once despised was about to commence.
He arrived in America with a German priest for his tutor, only to discover that his newly adopted country was desperately impoverished in regard to the Catholic Faith. It was amid this spiritual destitution that the young Prince Gallitzin would yearn to play an active role in God’s divine plan. Soon, with the encouragement of Archbishop Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore, he entered the recently founded Sulpician Seminary in that city. He advanced rapidly in piety and ecclesiastical learning, and on March 18, 1795, at the hands of Archbishop Carroll, became the second priest to be ordained in America, and the first to receive all degrees of Holy Orders in this country.
After his ordination, the Reverend Mr. Smith, (as Father Gallitzin, in humility, chose to call himself) wished to remain in the studious and contemplative atmosphere of the Seminary at Baltimore, as a member of that congregation, but this was not to be. Although the Archbishop granted him permission to remain in the Order of Saint Sulpice, Father Gallitzin would soon realize that the newly acquired duties laid upon him, of necessity, by the Archbishop were incompatible with the life of a Sulpician. He regretfully separated himself from a society that he had profoundly venerated.
In the spring of 1796 Bishop Carroll received a message from a Mrs. Burgoon, a member of the Maguire settlement, which is now in Loretto, Pennsylvania. The message asked that a priest be sent to give instructions to this dying woman who desperately wanted to become a Catholic. Bishop Carroll wasted no time in sending Father Gallitzin to her bedside. It was here, in the Allegheny wilderness, that the zealous missionary foresaw a flourishing Catholic colony springing up apart from the stern Protestantism of the large cities.
Upon returning to Baltimore, Father Gallitzin sought permission from the Archbishop to become permanently assigned to the thinly settled Catholic population of western Pennsylvania. Bishop Carroll readily granted permission in the hope that Father Gallitzin would build up a four-hundred-acre tract of land bequeathed to the Archdiocese by the distinguished Revolutionary War captain, Michael Maguire. The venerated Bishop’s hopes were not in vain.
In 1799 Father Gallitzin settled here permanently, in the midst of forests and rocky hills, finding only a dozen or so Catholics scattered over his one hundred square miles of “parish.” He built a thirty-foot log chapel, which would suffice for the few Catholics in the area. But Father Gallitzin was not satisfied with just a few Catholics. He wanted to start a Catholic colony which would eventually flourish into a Catholic nation. He purchased vast stretches of land in order to attract immigrants to his neck of the woods. He would then sell the land at greatly reduced rates, or give it away, hoping that his patrimony would meet these obligations. But the Emperor of Russia would not forgive this humble prince for “betraying the name of Gallitzin” by becoming a Catholic priest. As a result, in 1808 he received a letter from a friend in Europe saying “. . . it has been decided that by reason of your Catholic Faith, and your ecclesiastical profession, you cannot be admitted a share of your late father’s property.” Wealth was not of great concern to our humble priest, and if he did regret the loss at all, it was because he could not use his patrimony to relieve the poor. As his panegyrist has aptly noted, “If he had had a heart of gold, he would have given it to the unfortunate.”
His humility and charity served him well, but these were not to be outweighed by his strict orthodoxy. With great dialectical skill he would preach passionately from the pulpit the necessity for Protestants to recant their beliefs lest they suffer the everlasting fire. He did not ask for any interfaith dialogue; rather he demanded – with a fortitude that is severely lacking in today’s clergy – total conversion to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in order to please God. He composed several skillfully written works which were aimed at the errors of Protestantism. So popular were these works that they were translated into French, German, and Italian and were widely spread throughout Europe.
Father Gallitzin’s hardships were many. Often he would have to traverse mountainous regions of impenetrable forests, the habitat not of men but of wild beasts. Yet the indefatigable missionary would not hesitate to embark upon such perilous journeys in order to hear confessions or to say Mass. A Benedictine priest by the name of Father Lemcke, who was to be his successor, gives us an indication of Father Gallitzin’s undying zeal in the story he tells of their chance meeting:
“As we had gone a couple of miles through the woods, I caught sight of a sled drawn by a pair of vigorous horses, and in the sled a half-recumbent traveler. . . It occurred to me that some accident had happened to this gentleman, and that he was compelled to this singular mode of conveyance.
“. . . ‘Are you really the Pastor of Loretto?’ said I. ‘I am, sir. Prince Gallitzin, at your service,’ he said with a hearty laugh. ‘You are probably astonished at my equipage,’ he continued, ‘but there is no help for it. You have no doubt found out that in these countries you need not dream of a carriage road. You could not drive ten yards without danger of an overturn. I am prevented from traveling on horseback since a fall I have had, and it would be impossible for me to travel on foot. Besides, I carry everything for the celebration of Mass. I am on my way to a mission, where the Holy Sacrifice has been announced for today. Go to Loretto and make yourself at home; unless you would rather accompany me.’ I was only too happy to bear him company.”
In further describing the apostolic zeal of Father Gallitzin, we quote the then-Coadjutor of Philadelphia, Bishop Kenrick: “Loretto, in Cambria county, is the residence of the celebrated missionary, Prince Gallitzin, and is highly populated. It is more than thirty years since that venerable man chose the summit of the Alleghenies as his retreat, or rather as the centre of his mission; thence he went from time to time, to bear the succors of religion to the Catholics scattered over an immense territory, where five priests are now occupied. The number of the faithful at his arrival was very trifling in Cambria county; his perseverance, in spite of all the difficulties with which he had to contend, was crowned with heavenly benedictions. The mountains have become fertile and the forests flourishing. Many Protestants have followed his example, renouncing the errors of the sects in which they had been brought up; and Catholics come from all sides to commit themselves to the paternal care of a priest whose pure and humble life excites them to the exercise of the evangelical virtues.”
The fall mentioned in Father Lemcke’s account was believed to have been the eventual cause of Father Gallitizin’s death. In that fall he suffered a double hernia, which caused him tremendous suffering until he died four years later, on May 6th, Easter Sunday, 1840, exhausted by the excessive fatigue of hearing confessions and performing the ceremonies of Holy Week. His holy death ended an apostolate of forty-one years, and where, at his arrival, only a dozen Catholics were to be found, there now resided over ten thousand.
It is to the detriment of the Catholics of this county, not to say of the whole world, that they know so little of this princely missionary and his work. Despite the destructive course that the Masonic-Liberal contingency has taken in our beloved Church, the holy works of Father Demetrius Gallitzin remain intact. The little town of Loretto, Pennsylvania, which he founded, continues to be one of the most Catholic towns in America, as evinced by its ten Catholic Churches and three monasteries. If only we could instill his zeal into the Church today, our country would be flourishing with the Faith, and the Catholic country that Father Gallitzin envisioned would be a reality.