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Demetrius Gallitzin

"Apostle of the Alleghenies"




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Without a Doubt

Friday, September 13, 2002

The pastoral courage of Demetrius Gallitzin

During the summer while visiting relatives in Cresson, Pa., in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to become re-acquainted with the story of Father Demetrius A. Gallitzin, the “Apostle of the Alleghenies,” a man whose personal journey of faith is as interesting as it is important.

I have to admit that there’s more than just historical interest here — there’s a great deal of personal interest too! My Alma Mater, St. Francis University in Loretto, was established on property first purchased for the Church by Father Gallitzin. My grandparents, and other relatives, are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Loretto, the first cemetery of the Alleghenies, in the parish established by Father Gallitzin. During my visit to Cresson I learned that my great, great grandmother, Mrs. Catherine Cooper, was baptized and married by Father Gallitzin. And as a kid who made frequent family visits to the area, I grew up hearing names like Loretto, Cresson, Munster, Ebensburg, Gallitzin, and Hollidaysburg, towns that were part and parcel of Gallitzin’s pioneering efforts.

Let me summarize for you the life of this famous priest. (Information for this article is taken largely from the Biography of Gallitzin, Apostle of the Alleghenies, by Margaret and Matthew Bunson, commissioned by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 1999, the bicentennial of the founding of Loretto.)

Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was born of a Russian Prince and a German Countess in the Netherlands on December 22, 1770. Demetrius (nicknamed “Mitri” by his family) was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church with all the pomp and circumstance befitting his noble lineage. In fact, his godmother was the Empress, Catherine the Great of Russia.

In 1787, influenced by the faith of his pious Catholic mother, Demetrius and his sister were received into the Catholic Church, made their first confession and received First Holy Communion. Later on Demetrius reflected on this moment in his life: “Although I was born a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and although all my male relatives were either Greeks or Protestants, yet did I resolve that religion only which, upon impartial inquiry, should appear to be the pure religion of Jesus Christ. My choice fell upon the Catholic Church.”

In 1792, Demetrius traveled to America and was soon introduced to Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the first bishop of the United States. The Archbishop encouraged Demetrius to pursue his evolving priestly vocation and sponsored his studies at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. On March 18, 1795, Bishop Carroll ordained Demetrius to the priesthood, the first priest to receive all his orders in preparation for the priesthood in the United States of America.

After serving in several initial assignments, Father Gallitzin requested permission to minister in the rugged mountains of west central Pennsylvania and on March 1, 1799, Bishop Carroll assigned Father Gallitzin as resident pastor of a small village known as McGuire Settlement. Later, the pioneer priest renamed the town Loretto after the place of Marian devotion in Italy. Father Gallitzin built the first permanent church in Loretto and the first Mass was celebrated there on Christmas 1799.

For the next 41 years, Father Gallitzin traveled the Allegheny Mountains, often in very difficult conditions, preaching, teaching, serving, praying and offering the sacraments to the young but growing Catholic Church. Father Gallitzin ministered faithfully until the very end of his life, and after a brief illness, died on May 6, 1840.

Demetrius Gallitzin found that his life and vocation were completely fulfilled in the serene mountains of Pennsylvania, far removed from his noble upbringing. On one occasion he wrote to his mother who was encouraging him to return to the relative safety and comfort of Europe: “You can be fully assured that I have no other will in life, and wish to have no other, than that of fulfilling God’s will. You can be further assured that I find no lasting joy outside the activities of my calling.”

It seems to me that in hearing the story of Father Gallitzin, we should understand the personal strength and pastoral courage that characterized his service to the Church. From the time he left his privileged surroundings in Europe, he forged ahead without regret and responded to the call of the Gospel with zeal and conviction. As his biographers emphasize: “His daily routine was one given over entirely to service, taken up by the sacraments, physical labor, and traveling to the far-flung missions under his care. He was up before dawn and spent each day riding across the rugged mountains in the heat of summer or in the shattering cold of winter.” And in his ministry he experienced many challenges we can easily recognize in the life of the Church today.

One of his first challenges as a newly ordained priest was to counter rampant trusteeism, the practice of placing a parish in the hands of a board of parishioners, or trustees, many of whom were not even Catholic. These groups controlled the parish, separated themselves from other parishioners, and operated the parish as a profit making organization, with the proceeds frequently going to themselves. Father Gallitzin rejected this aberrant practice as foreign to Catholicism, and properly insisted on his rights and responsibilities as pastor.

As Father Gallitzin traveled to his assignments he sometimes encountered the severe anti-Catholicism still rampant in the new country of the United States. He faced threats of personal physical violence, even from dissident Catholics unhappy with the determination of his ministry. On one occasion an angry mob of malcontents launched a “murderous attack” upon him but he was rescued by a “mountain of a man,” a passerby named John Weakland. Despite the opposition, Gallitzin was undeterred in his work.

Throughout much of his ministry, Father Gallitzin struggled with severe financial challenges, sometimes to the brink of bankruptcy. The land he was serving was poor, and the pastoral needs were great. To support the Church, Father Gallitzin relied on the use of his personal finances, supplied from home by his mother, but often even these were not sufficient to sustain his work. Nonetheless, he was relentless in raising funds, seeking assistance and in the end, eradicating the debts of his young Church.

Father Gallitzin was usually alone and isolated in his work. At one point, Archbishop Carroll agreed to send an assistant priest to Father Gallitzin, but the priest in question had considerable personal difficulties. Father Gallitzin wrote to the Archbishop: “I think myself duty bound to accept your proposal, provided your Lordship thinks it probable that the said clergyman is not likely to give any more scandal in the way you mention. From what little experience I have, it appears to me that abstinence from spirituous liquor is the only sure way of breaking a habit of that kind, and as I never keep any kind of liquor, nor drink anything than water or milk, he will have a fine chance.”

Records show that the troubled priest never arrived on the mountain for his assignment and Mitri was obliged to carry on his duties alone.

Father Gallitzin was a bold and effective defender of the Catholic Faith, responding to anti-Catholicism whenever it occurred. In 1816, for example, in reacting to a particularly vicious anti-Catholic sermon by a Protestant minister named Johnson, he wrote the famed A Defence of Catholic Principles in a Letter to a Protestant Minister, a logical, clear, compelling and scholarly work. In the conclusion of his dissertation, Gallitzin wrote to his Protestant foe: “For God’s sake, dear sir, if you value the glory of God and the salvation of your soul, give up protesting against the Catholic Church. In it alone you will find salvation.”

Despite the tense rhetoric of the day, Gallitzin was an established public leader with friends and supporters from other religious persuasions. In fact, his ecumenical spirit would be very recognizable today. For example, he explained: “Whatever differences on points of doctrine may exist amongst the different denominations of Christians, all should be united in the bonds of charity, all should pray for one another, all should be willing to assist one another; and, where we are compelled to disapprove of our neighbor’s doctrine, let our disapprobation fall upon his doctrine only, not upon his person.”

Father Gallitzin’s efforts were tireless, even in his final illness. The winter of 1839-1840 was especially difficult for Mitri and his health continued to decline. A physician who had settled in Ebensburg told Father Gallitzin that “bed rest, warmth and respite from his labors” were necessary if he should have any hope of recovering. Gallitzin thanked the doctor for his advice, but responded that such a course would be impossible to follow given the needs of his flock during Lent and Easter. Completely drained of his strength in service to the Gospel, Father Gallitzin died shortly after Easter that year.

As we reflect on the life of Father Gallitzin, then, we see that some of the challenges he faced are very familiar to us. Perhaps it’s somewhat comforting to remember that our problems today aren’t unique.

But what we also find in the story of Demetrius Gallitzin is the witness of a man of immense vision, courage and love. We see a true servant of the Church, totally in love with Christ and selflessly devoted to the spiritual care of God’s people. The pastoral courage of Demetrius Gallitzin is a compelling example for all who serve the Church today.