Royal Russian Converts: The Two Princes Galitzin

The name Galitzin should be known and loved by every American Catholic. Prince Dimitrius Augustine Galitzin was the second priest ordained in the United States, and the first to receive all of his clerical orders here. He worked as a missionary in the Alleghenies, and founded the town of Loretto, Pennsylvania. The area of western Pennsylvania in which he worked had about a dozen Catholics in it when he arrived, and over ten thousand when he died forty-one years later.

Galitzin himself was a convert. He was a Russian nobleman whose family was culturally Russian Orthodox, but religiously libertine. They followed the ravings of Voltaire and Diderot, whom they encountered in Paris while Prince Alexander, Dimitrius’ father, filled the post of Russian ambassador to France.

In From the Housetops 28, James Hazelrigg wrote an article on Father Galitzin in which his conversion was recounted:

“Dimitrius’ 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 Dimitrius’ 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 Galitzin, ‘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 Galitzin 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 Dimitrius’ 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 Dimitrius. 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. . . .'”

The Other Prince Galitzin

About a century after Father Galitzin, another Prince Galitzin, also named Dimitri became a Catholic. His story was related in the book, Through Hundred Gates. We reproduce it here exactly as it appeared in that book, under the title, “An Argument From History.”

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Many Russians ask me why I became a Catholic and disavowed the faith of my parents and ancestors. They say: “It is a disgrace for a member of the Galitzin family to act thus since our ancestors emigrated to Russia because they refused to remain in a country which was under the sway of Rome.”

History relates how my direct ancestor, Prince Patrikei of Zwenigorod, and his sons entered the service of the grand duke of Moscow in 1408. This he did undoubtedly because service in Moscow made it easier for him to preserve the Orthodox faith for himself and his children.

I myself was born in the Russian Orthodox church and, though as a child I had been religious, I did not actually interest myself until later in the differences between the various religions. In studying the history of my country and that of my ancestral lineage, however, I made the discovery that many of my relatives had become converts to the Catholic Church. This caused me to make the following reflections.

Russia became a major power and waxed stronger in proportion as the idea of autocracy took hold of the nation. Simultaneously, Orthodoxy grew stronger. Detailed proofs of this may be found in the works of Zabujni, of Prince August Galitzin, of Professor von Taube, and others. For the present, I would like to show the traditional attitude of the Russians toward the Catholic Church, which throws a glaring light on Russian despotism.

The biography on Prince Dimitri Augustin Galitzin, alias Father Smith, Catholic missionary in the United States of America, which was written by Prince Gagarine, contains the following words: “The prince was born and reared in the Greek schism and was heir to all those strange prejudices which are caused by pride and ignorance, passed on by the force of habit, which induces despotism to take the place of God and His representatives….” This spirit of despotism and absolutism is a trait of Russian history.

Czar Michael Feodorovitch, as well as Czar Alexei Mikhailovitch, was biased against Rome. They could not forget the attempt of the Russian aristocracy, headed by the metropolitan Filaret, the father of the first monarch of the house of Romanoff, to elevate the Catholic Polish Prince Wladislaw to the Russian throne. This restless period of our history was still vividly in their minds.

Then came the reign of the Czarina Sophia. We were taught that she was a selfish and arrogant woman who, in defiance of all laws, prevented the legitimate successor to the throne, Peter, from ruling Russia. According to historical records, however, the Czarina was actually different. In order to get the true story of this regent one must delve into the earliest historical documents. These prove conclusively that the Czarina was a highly educated and noble woman. With the aid of her counselor, Prince Wassilij Galitzin, and the Russian aristocracy, she planned to Europeanize Russia peacefully, and not, as unfortunately was done later, by foreign adventurers, with the knout, and by the abolition of the Russian aristocracy.

The Czarina and Prince Galitzin also planned to bring about a reunion in faith. The Pope sent the Jesuit Vota to the Prince in order to negotiate concerning the Holy alliance against the Turks. Possibly the question of a reunion in faith, which was again brought up later under the reign of the Romanoffs, would have found a happy solution if the Czarina had ruled longer.

Peter the Great, who by the by was an avowed atheist, was desirous of a reunion for reasons of dynasty. The bulky work of Father Pierling, Heiligster Thron in Russland, throws much light on this period. Peter the Great, the oppressor of the Church, was the author of the most illegal institution the world has ever seen. By and edict, dated May 11, 1722, he decreed: “The Holy Synod shall choose a good-hearted officer, who is also brave and acquainted with the administration, and appoint him state supervisor of the Synod.”

A return of Russia to the Catholic Church would have been accomplished under the reign of Peter II if the Czar had not died prematurely. It is evident from a collection of manuscripts contained in the Slavic library of Paris, that Princess Irene Dolgorouky, daughter of Prince Peter Galitzin, who acted as Russian ambassador to the court of Vienna, negotiated with representatives of the Pope concerning a reunion in faith. She was converted in the year 1727 at Utrecht and came to Russia during the rule of Peter II, with definite proposals regarding a rapprochement with Rome. A member of the house of Dolgorouky, which was the ruling family at that time, was actually to have been appointed as patriarch of Russia and representative of the Holy Father. The untimely death of the monarch, however, frustrated these plans.

History records what became of the family of Dolgorouky. The following regent, Czarina Anna Joannova, bitterly persecuted the Church; indeed her hatred was boundless. The very fact that she compelled the convert Prince Mikhail Galitzin (Kwassnik) to assume the role of a court jester betrays her attitude toward Catholicism. In the novel Eishaus, by Lajetchnikoff, a description is given of the brutal treatment accorded to this true martyr of the faith who, in spite of all chicanery, remained loyal to the Church. It is related that his last prayer was formulated in the words: “My God, grant me as a final favor that the conversion to the true Faith may never cease in our family.” Evidently God heard the prayer of this martyr.

The good relationship existing between the Czar Paul and the Catholic Church is worthy of mention. He realized what a curse absolutism was for the country which made orthodoxy a handmaid of the state, and contemplated a reorganization of the Russian church. He even invited Pope Pius VII to Petersburg when the latter was hard pressed by Napoleon. He also held first rank in the order of Catholic Knights of Malta, which he intended to transplant to Russia. The benevolence of the Czar towards the Jesuits is proven by his words to Father Grubber, who makes mention of them in his letter to Archbishop Marotti of November 23, 1800. The Czar is quoted as saying: “I see no other means of combating irreligion, Illuminism and Jacobinism in our country than by entrusting the education of our youth to the Jesuits. One must begin at a tender age to lay a good foundation, otherwise everything will collapse, not only the faith, but also the government.” These words seem prophetical if we view the subsequent development. An interesting occurrence of recent times ought not to be omitted in this connection. The able historian von Baumgarten, at his departure from Russia under the Bolsheviks, received from a member of the Lvow family an emerald enclosing a thorn of the crown of thorns of our Lord. The Czar Paul had always worn this emerald as grand master of the Knights of Malta.

When von Baumgarten returned from Russia to Rome, Pope Benedict XV mentioned in the course of an audience[1] how gratified he felt that the records of the Vatican archives showed that Czar Paul I had become a Catholic at the end of his life. If Czar Paul had not been assassinated, at the instigation of foreign powers, Russia undoubtedly would have repaired her schism at that time.

Czar Alexander I feared the consequences of revolutionary ideas – which he had himself fostered for a time – especially after the assassination of Kotzebue. He therefore resolved to steer the ship of state into more placid waters. He saw in the union of all churches the best protection against all revolutionary powers. Through his ambassador at the Vatican, Italinski, he submitted a plan to Pope Pius VII with the request to arrange a meeting of the Latin and Russian hierarchy in the neutral city of Venice. In his letter to Italinski the Czar prides himself on being the originator of this plan and mentions the advantages the union would have for the state. He even expresses the desire to visit Rome personally. Unfortunately this undertaking also was doomed by the ill advice given the Czar by his counselors.

To what then did the despotic rule over the church eventually lead? Czarism collapsed, and also the church. Even during the mildest period of the Bolshevik revolution the church was helpless because she had been too long under the control of the commissaries of the state such as Protassof, Tschebischew, Tolstoi, Pobedonostzeff, and others. When the almighty state, which had held her, was swept away, the days of the church also were numbered. The Orthodox church offered no such resistance as did the Church of Rome in other countries under similar trying circumstances.

This insight into the history of Russia was the decisive factor in my conversion and received a new impulse in the discovery that many of my ancestors favored a revival of Catholicism in that county. Some of the members of the house of Galitzin joined the Catholic Church because they realized the cause of the Greek schism and the truth of Catholicism, as did I myself. It was only the absolutism of the state that perpetuated the schism in Russia.

Did not Wassilij the Dark exile the metropolitan Isidor for signing the document of reunion in Florence because Wassilij feared a curtailment of his power? Did not Peter the Great discard the advice of George I of England because the thought of a diminution of his power seemed unbearable to him? Does not the hatred of the Czarina Anna Joannovna against the Catholic Church prove that a reunion was possible? Moreover, the commissaries of state also, for obvious reasons, did not favor a union of churches.

God, however, ordained otherwise. Those who feared to lose a part of their power lost everything. State absolutism dug its own grave. The Russian people avoided the Catholic Church not only because of ignorance and indifference, but also because of fear of persecution in the event of conversion.

After contemplating these facts and realizing that many of my ancestors and relatives served the Catholic Church faithfully, I likewise became desirous of becoming a Catholic.

[1] Revue de l’Histoire Moderne, May-June, 1930)