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Demetrius Gallitzin

"Apostle of the Alleghenies"




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Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Sainthood sought for Gallitzin

By Ann Rodgers  

Tomorrow in Loretto's Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel, Frank and Betty Seymour will present Bishop Joseph Adamec with the petition for sainthood for Father Demetrius Gallitzin, an 18th century Russian prince who converted to Catholicism and became a pioneering missionary in Western Pennsylvania.

"He literally gave up everything to pursue a life of extraordinary hardship, in order to plant the Catholic church here on this frontier," said Betty Seymour, a retired teacher from Loretto, Cambria County .

Her research, with that of her husband, has made them "co-postulators," or head researchers, of Father Gallitzin's cause for canonization. The ceremony at 3 p.m. tomorrow, in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, opens the official inquiry.

Teams of theologians and historians must examine his life for "heroic virtue.'' Eventually, medical experts must examine two alleged miracles -- claims that someone was inexplicably healed beyond medical remedy, after someone asked the saint to pray for their healing. So far no miracle has reported for Father Gallitzin.

It's unusual for a diocese to champion a sainthood cause, because of the time and expense. But Msgr. Michael Servinsky, vicar general of Altoona-Johnstown, said they are trusting God for the money -- and hoping costs will be low because Father Gallitzin's writings are well-catalogued.

He gave up fortune and fame "to become a Catholic priest serving in the Allegheny Mountains in the early 1800s, in a log cabin. ... He was the first priest to come to Western Pennsylvania , and he founded the first church in this diocese," he said.

It's impossible to live in Loretto -- which Father Gallitzin christened for a Marian shrine in Italy -- without sensing his legacy. Mr. Seymour, a retired welfare administrator, recalls as a child slipping his hand into a broken corner of Father Gallitzin's glass-domed coffin in what is now the basilica. Many locals did so until his body was securely entombed in the 1950s.

"You could feel his dust, which felt like silk," he said.

He began to study Father Gallitzin in 1970. In 1988 he founded the Prince Gallitzin Historical Association of Loretto. That same year, Mrs. Seymour spent a sabbatical researching him for the 1999 bicentennial of his arrival in Loretto.

He was born Dec. 22, 1770 , in The Hague , Netherlands , where his father was Russia 's ambassador to Holland . The Gallitzins were fabulously wealthy Russian aristocrats who carried royal titles, so he was, officially, a prince. He was baptized Orthodox, but both parents were committed rationalists who disdained faith.

When he was a teen, his mother began to study the Bible. She became a devout Catholic, and her son soon followed. His father sent him to America , hoping to get the religion out of his system.

Instead the young prince was overwhelmed by the spiritual need he saw here. He entered a new Catholic seminary in Baltimore and in 1795 became the first priest to have received all of his holy orders in the new nation. In 1796, while serving an area that included the Maryland panhandle and southern Pennsylvania , he answered an urgent message from a dying Protestant woman in McGuire's Station -- now Loretto -- who wanted to convert to Catholicism. He made the 150-mile journey and discovered a tiny community founded by a Catholic officer in the Revolutionary War, who had willed 400 acres to Bishop Carroll in hope that a priest could be sent. Father Gallitzin undertook the mission.

In the summer of 1799 the 29-year-old priest began building a log church that is now St. Michael's Basilica.

His idea was to bring oppressed, persecuted immigrants from the city and help them become land-owning farmers and tradesmen. He spent his entire personal fortune of $150,000 -- $4 million today -- toward that goal. Then he borrowed more on the expectation of an inheritance.

He bought additional acreage, and built sawmills, tanneries and grist mills. He made low-interest loans, many not repaid, for Catholics to buy land. He took in orphans. In 1816 he plotted a town of 144 lots.

"He felt Catholics needed to join together to strengthen their faith. And it worked very well here. This is an extremely Catholic area. ... When he came here there were 12 Catholic families. When he died, there were thousands," Mrs. Seymour said.

For 20 years, he was the lone priest in a region encompassing today's dioceses of Pittsburgh , Altoona-Johnstown, Greensburg and Erie .

When his inheritance was in jeopardy, he also refused to go back to Europe to fight for it. As a result he never inherited and lived in debt.

Father Gallitzin, a highly educated man, wrote works defending the Catholic faith against claims it was unbiblical superstition. One was translated into three languages and circulated in Europe .

He died on May 6, 1840 , and is buried in Loretto. From that time many Catholics believed he was a saint. Pilgrims from across the United States and Europe have long visited his grave. "The Vatican does not create a saint, they only recognize them," Mr. Seymour said.

Msgr. Servinsky believes it will take about a year to compile the testimony for his "heroic virtue." If the Vatican agrees, he will be declared "venerable." After that, evidence of a miracle is needed for beatification, and a second is needed for sainthood. Anyone who believes they have such a miracle -- or documents pertaining to Father Gallitzin -- is urged to contact the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

"Probably the question people ask us most about his sainthood is 'Why now? Why did everybody wait so long?' " Mrs. Seymour said.

"Maybe the reason we didn't do it until now is that now is when he is needed. Maybe the things he wrote will appeal to a lot of people today."

Also see articles from:

    The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown

    The Johnstown Tribune Democrat