Over the years, the picturesque beauty and historic sites of the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania have proved popular to tourists. But tucked away within the mountains is another great attraction: a village of beautiful shrines.
After 200 years, Loretto is the home of several shrines, fulfilling the dream of its founder, Father Demetrius Gallitzin, the first priest ordained in the United States by its first bishop — and a prince, descended from Lithuanian royalty. In March 1799, Father Gallitzin was officially assigned as permanent pastor of an Allegheny mission, and by late autumn he founded Loretto, a village named after the renowned shrine in Italy.
Today, there stands the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel; the Prince Gallitzin chapel house; Shrines to Our Lady of Fatima, Loretto and Lourdes; Mount Assisi Monastery meditative gardens; a Carmelite monastery; and a Catholic college.
St. Mary Street
The half-mile string of sites is connected by St. Mary's Street, one of two main roads laid out by Father Gallitzin. A tireless pastor and missionary, he also built churches, a rectory, and a tannery, among other things, spending $150,000. He borrowed most of that princely sum while living in two rooms of St. Mary's Chapel House, often sleeping on the floor as mortification.
Despite the heavy workload, Father Gallitzin took in orphans and even adopted six of them who lived with a housekeeper in the chapel house. Today, this historic building contains offices and museum rooms, as well as St. Mary's Chapel.
Some renovations have been carried out. The altar the humble prince once used is now encased in stone, but other original items remain as they were, including the Communion rail and one row of pews. The house displays items from the life of the founder including articles he used at Mass, and such belonging as his violin and clock, bearing the royal coat of arms, sent by his mother.The Alleghenies' first cemetery is near the chapel house, and a short distance away is the hillside crypt of Father Gallitzin, which features a bronze statue of the priest.
Between the chapel house and St. Michael's basilica, there is the outdoor shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies, which was dedicated on Sept. 8, 1951. The shrine is the official Marian shrine of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and features a depiction of the Blessed Virgin dressed as a pioneer woman in cap and cloak, reaching out to a child.
St. Michael's Basilica
St. Michael's was dedicated in 1901 and named a basilica in 1996. It was Father Gallitzin's hope that a new diocese would be centered there, but it wasn't to be.
The basilica's round-arched, Gothic edifice with its arcaded belfry was donated by Charles Schwab, who grew up in the town. The organ, which can be heard within a half-mile radius, was donated by Andrew Carnegie.
The basilica itself is built in Latin cruciform and seated 1,100 before recent renovations. It has four Gothic altars of white Carrara marble, and a Mexican onyx Communion rail on top of gleaming brass capitals. It also contains many murals and other major paintings on canvas. The pews are red quartered oak to match the other woodwork in the basilica.
The basilica fits nicely into this small town, which is celebrating the bicentennial of Loretto and its founder with parish and diocesan events. The celebrations will culminate in this year's Christmas midnight Mass.
The Sunken Gardens
A visit to Loretto would not be complete without a visit to the Mount Assisi Monastery Sunken Gardens.
Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, within the north wall of the gardens, was dedicated in May 1950 after years of extensive work to reclaim and restore the gardens. Father Ronald Bodenschatz, a Third Order Regular Franciscan, was a novice at the time. Today, more than a half-century later, he is curator of the gardens, responsible for three separate restoration jobs. He did much of the work and still plants most of the shrubbery.
The statue of Our Lady of Fatima and statues of the three children visionaries stand in front of a bright, 31-foot mural of the Portuguese countryside. A large rosary is displayed on another wall.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto was built beside it in 1996. The statue of Mary is dressed in sparkling white robes and darkened to look aged like the Lebanese cedar statue in the original shrine in Italy.
The garden shrines flank the carved limestone staircases that lead to the upper lawns and the monastery itself (not open to the public). Trellised roofs for grape arbor and wisteria vine shelter the many different walks throughout the gardens. The eastern pergola displays a statue of St. Michael in its rock garden, while the western pergola honors St. Anthony. There is also an Italian Pierra Sanota marble statue of St. Joseph with the Child Jesus.
There is still much more to see. Hidden within the landscape is a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes and there is also the shrine of St. Joseph the Worker. One day is never enough in this little town in the heart of the mountains.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
The Prince Who Became An Apostle
As a young prince, Demetrius Gallitzin never lived in his home-land where his ancestors were well-known royalty, rulers and statesmen. A direct descendant of King Gediminas, 14th century ruler of Lithuania, he was born in The Hague, in Holland, where his father, Dimitri Alexeievitch Gallitzin, was envoy of Catherine the Great. He grew up under the watchful eye of his mother, Countess Amelia von Schmettau, daughter of Frederick II's Prussian field marshal. His childhood playmates included William of Orange, the future king of Holland.
An expert swordsman and horseman, the prince wasn't particularly religious, because his parents were friends with Enlightenment philosophers. But when his parents separated, his mother returned to the Catholic faith — and brought he and his sister with her. When he sailed to America in 1792 to complete his education, he used the name Augustine Smith because in post-Revolutionary War America, royalty was unfashionable.
He finished seminary training in Baltimore, and retained the name “Smith” even after ordination, keeping it until he restored his family name in 1810. By then, Loretto was established as the fifth Pennsylvania mission, the place where Father Gallitzin earned his title, “Apostle of the Alleghenies.”