Cause for the Canonization of 

Servant of God 

Demetrius Gallitzin

"Apostle of the Alleghenies"




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The Reverend Prince

by Carl Fris

from Westsylvania - Autumn 1999

As the brilliant red sun sets amid the lush green ridges, poignant strains of a lone violin echo through the still evening air.  The music – tonight it is Beethoven – is familiar and comforting to those who have heard it often.  It sings of celebration and thanksgiving, wonder, and praise to God for the many blessings bestowed upon those who live and work in the Allegheny Mountains .

The violinist is Father Demetrius Gallitzin, and the composition is one of three Beethoven wrote for Gallitzin’s royal family, when he was a child in Europe .  Tomorrow, the men of his parish will come by to harvest the crops from his farm.  The priest will insist upon sharing the vegetables with the community.  Out of respect and admiration, the workers will not allow this gentle man to help.  So as they work, he will stand in the fields with them and play.

Two hundred years after a Russian prince became a Catholic priest and brought organized religion to the Alleghenies, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese is celebrating the spirit and works of a man who was a missionary, pastor and frontier philosopher-apologist; who founded dozens of parishes, developed the town of Loretto and cared for most of its inhabitants in a fashion so personal and varied as to border on the incredible.

“What Father Gallitzin accomplished in daily labors was staggering,” notes Matthew E. Bunson, a Catholic historian.  “He is an example of heroic virtue, passing each day in prayer and work.  When examined in detail, it becomes awe-inspiring.”

Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was born to royalty on December 22, 1770 , at The Hague , Netherlands .  His father was Prince Dimitri Alexeievitch, Envoy Extraordinary of Catherine the Great of Russia ; his mother was Countess Amalia, daughter of Samuel von Schmettau, field marshal to Prussia ’s King Frederick the Great.

Although Princess Amalia had been raised a Catholic and Prince Dimitri, Orthodox, they prided themselves on being aristocrats of the Era of Enlightenment and had stopped practicing their Christian faiths.  So young “Mitri” and his older sister Marianne (“Mimi”) were not raised in any religious faith.  Amalia eventually moved to Muenster , Germany , and returned to Catholicism.  The following year, 1787, Mitri and Mimi were received into the church.

A few years later, Amalia renewed an acquaintance with Father Felix Brosius, who was planning a trip to America at the request of American Bishop John Carroll.  German-speaking priests were being called to serve Bishop Carroll’s mission territory in the United States .  Mitri’s parents made arrangements for him to accompany Father Brosius, believing that a two-year tour of the United States would add to his education.

To conceal his royal lineage, Mitri traveled to the New World as Augustine Schmet, using a shortened form of his mother’s maiden name von Schmettau.  On October 28, 1792 Augustine and Father Brosius arrived in Baltimore where the name Schmet soon became Smith.  Bishop Carroll permitted the 22-year-old Mr. Smith to stay at the seminary, where he spent long hours in quiet prayer and study.

Mitri soon asked Bishop Carroll to admit him to study for the priesthood at the new St. Mary’s Seminary, the first seminary in America .  The Bishop postponed an immediate decision, instead inviting the young Gallitzin to accompany him on pastoral visits throughout the thirteen colonies.  Experiencing the hardships of the wilderness made Mitri even more determined to become a priest.

On March 18, 1795 , at the age of 24, Augustine Smith was ordained, becoming the first priest to receive all of his orders for the priesthood in the United States .

In the 1790s a priest’s work was mostly missionary.  Mass was celebrated in homes, rather than churches.  Father Smith was called one day to trek to the fourth ridge of the Alleghany Mountains and a settlement begun by a Revolutionary war veteran, Captain Michael McGuire, to minister to a dying woman.

Father Smith left McGuire’s settlement with an unrelenting desire to return.  He had grown to love the beautiful countryside, was impressed by the warmth of the people he had met, and even had arranged to purchase land adjacent to the settlement.

In 1799 the Bishop assigned Smith to serve as parish priest for the people of McGuire’s Settlement.  Father Smith celebrated his first Mass there on Christmas Eve at the log church he named for St. Michael the Archangel , in keeping with the European tradition that churches built on mountaintops be named after St. Michael, and in honor of Captain McGuire, who had willed a 400-acre tract of land for a resident pastor and a church.

In 1802, Father Smith became a naturalized citizen of his adopted country, and in 1810 he legally returned to his family name, Gallitzin.  Throughout the years, Father Gallitzin was looked up to and cherished by his parishioners.  In addition to the church and residence, he built a model farm and a school.

Father Gallitzin died May 6, 1840 .  About six years before his death, Father Gallitzin feel from his horse and suffered an injury that made walking difficult.  From then on he had to conduct his travels in a “sledge” – a combination sled and wagon.  His travel about the mountain in his sledge – summer, fall, winter and spring – became legendary.

Betty Seymour of the Gallitzin Historical Association, who lectures on the Prince, says he became not only the community’s priest and spiritual director but its land broker, lawyer, arbitrator, mayor, storekeeper, board of education and even its doctor.  Above all, he was a Shepard to his parishioners.  His fine education, intelligence and prayer life gave him a wisdom that his people recognized and appreciated.

He also was responsible for building a grist mill, a saw mill, and a tannery, and for laying out the town of Loretto , named after the Holy House of Our Lady in Loretto , Italy .

The prince priest’s story continues to fascinate biographers even today.  Matthew Bunson, author of The Angelic Doctor: The Life and World of St. Thomas Aquinas and The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, is working with his mother, author and illustrator Margaret Bunson, on a biography:  Apostle of the Alleghenies: Father Demetrius Gallitzin. The Bunsons plan to publish their book this fall, in time for the bicentennial anniversary celebrations planned by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and Loretto to commemorate Gallitzin’s arrival in the mountains.

Another book, Father Gallitzin, Prince and Priest, was published in 1998 by Raymond Bradley Ph.D., a retired professor of philosophy at St. Francis College in Loretto.  Dr. Bradley has a personal interest in the former priest, who raised Bradley’s great-great grandmother, Elizabeth (Betsy) McConnell, along with her brothers and sisters, when they were left orphans in 1805.  Gallitzin enlarged his modest cabin to house the five McConnell children and housekeeper.

Father Galltizin was acclaimed as a philosopher-apologist of the frontier and wrote extensively, most notably, The Defence (sic) of Catholic Principles in 1816.  Gallitzin loved the Constitution of the United States and saw no conflict between it and religion.  Gallitzin’s Letters (1940)  edited by Grace Murphy is a compilation of his early writings.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown reveres Gallitzin as a spiritual father and founder and is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel with a variety of activities throughout the later half of 1999. 

Visit the Prince Gallitzin Chapel House, built in 1832, and you will see many artifacts of the Reverent Prince, including his violin and silver chalice.  On display during the bicentennial are his vestments, made for him by his mother from her own wedding dress.  The vestments are on loan from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, PA who tenderly have cared for them over the years.

Also on exhibition will be a large 18th century oil painting, The Adoration of the Christ Child, by F. Bruggenburg, sent as a gift to Mitri by his mother and recently restored by Michael Mosorjak of Johnstown .

At a Midnight Mass on Christmas, the Most Rev. Joseph V. Adamec, Bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, will be the main celebrant and will use Father Gallitzin’s silver chalice.  The Reverend Prince’s violin will be played by symphony musician Lois Morris of Ebensburg, custodian of the violin and the only person trusted with the care and playing of the fragile relic.

“Every time I hear…the Reverent Prince’s violin at Mass, I am struck with awe,” says Bishop Adamec.  “That same instrument, which praised God two centuries ago, continues to do so today.”

Once played by a prince-turned-priest who gave up court life to serve the Lord on the unforgiving frontier, that violin still sings in celebration and thanksgiving, wonder and praise to God for the many blessings bestowed upon those who live and work in the Alleghenies.

Carol Fris is a freelance writer, who lives in Johnstown and enjoys writing on church history.