Where a Privileged Prince Became a Poor Priest

Nature and man have collaborated to make Loretto, Pa., a perfect place for a pilgrimage.

High in the Allegheny Mountains, the small town can boast not only of its scenic surroundings but also of its gracious Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel (feast day: Sept. 29).

Best of all is the story behind the structure: The basilica stands on the site of a humble log church built in 1799 by an unusual missionary — a priest who was a prince.

Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was born in 1770 in The Hague, Netherlands, where his father was the Russian ambassador. The father came from one of Russia's oldest and richest noble families. Princess Amalie, the boy's mother, was a brilliant woman who held salons for the intellectuals of her day. Baptized a Catholic, she did not practice the faith until she experienced a conversion in 1786. The 16-year-old Prince Demetrius shared his mother's new-found devotion.

After the prince's education was complete, his father urged him into the military. It was a life the boy heartily disliked. He served time as aide-de-camp to an Austrian general, but made a poor and unwilling officer. The parents decided that two years of travel might help the aimless young man and sent him to visit the United States in 1792, accompanied by a priest-tutor.

The pair landed in Baltimore with a letter of introduction to Bishop John Carroll. Here Demetrius was attracted to the French Sulpician priests who had fled the French Revolution and founded a seminary in Baltimore, the first in the new country. He was saddened to learn of the lack of priests to minister to Catholics on the frontier. The young prince decided to become a missionary.

Bishop Carroll had his doubts. Although he had tried to attract young men to the priesthood, few survived the seminary or the rigors of ministering to the people scattered in the backwoods. Here was a pampered young nobleman, a recent convert used to a life of luxury, wishing to become a missionary. It seemed that his only qualifications were that he spoke both German and English and was an excellent horseman.

With misgivings, Bishop Carroll permitted Demetrius to enter the seminary. His parents sent anxious messages trying to dissuade him, but the young prince did well in his studies at St. Mary's Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1795. He was the first man to receive all the orders, from tonsure to priesthood, within the boundaries of the original 13 colonies.

Sanctified Surroundings

The new priest began his ministry in Baltimore but his assignments often carried him far from the city. On a pastoral visit in the Allegheny Mountains, he fell in love with the beautiful area, and his heart went out to the families struggling in poverty. Many were Catholic — yet had rarely seen a priest and, in fact, hardly knew they were Catholic. Why not found a colony for them on this wilderness frontier, build a church and set up mills and shops to improve both their religious and economic life?

With permission from Bishop Carroll, Father Gallitzin purchased land for the colony with money lent him on the strength of the vast inheritance he expected to receive from his family. He sold tracts to settlers on easy terms, then built a church, sawmills, tanneries and other facilities for his growing flock. He named the colony “Loretto” after a Marian shrine in Italy. Today the town of Loretto is near another community named in the priest's honor, Gallitzin.

Financial woes dogged the missionary and until his death he was never free of debt. Trustingly, he often gave out sections of land for which he was never paid. The worst blow came when the Russian government barred his inheritance because he had become a Catholic priest. Throughout his years on the frontier he did not receive any salary but supported himself, orphans, and the poor from the produce of his farm.

For 20 years Father Gallitzin was the only priest ministering to the Catholic settlers of central and western Pennsylvania. The rugged mountain area had virtually no roads. He visited his flock on foot and horseback, never daunted by heat, cold, snow or mud — or by the rough hospitality of his poor flock. A fall from his horse caused serious leg and internal injuries and, when this ended his ability to ride, he rigged up a sort of horse-drawn sled. In this odd vehicle he would recline and travel through the mountains in all kinds of weather.

Other troubles plagued him. Protestant settlers from the east were moving into the area, often bringing with them the anti-Catholicism of the times. When it was discovered that the priest had once borne the hated title of “Prince,” he was accused of being an aristocratic monarchist, a papist and an enemy of the common man. Undaunted, Gallitzin spoke out bravely and wrote powerful tracts in defense of the Catholic faith. At times there were serious threats against him and he found it necessary to carry a pistol.

Spent for God

By the close of 1839, the 69-year-old priest was in failing health. Thin and stooped, he walked with difficulty. Often his voice gave out during homilies and he would end up weeping softly. A doctor counseled him to moderate his work, stop hearing confessions in the drafty church — and stop making the rounds bouncing along in his ridiculous sleigh. He ignored the advice.

On Easter Monday, 1840, Father Gallitzin could not rise from his bed. He had not neglected a single labor throughout Lent and Holy Week. He made out a will, leaving all his possessions to the parish. They consisted of several horses, two cows, two violins and 574 books. Surrounded by many of his devoted parishioners, on May 6 of that year Father Demetrius Gallitztin died.

After a procession through the town, as the Miserere was chanted, the priest was lowered into the ground in an $8 coffin. Today his body rests in a tomb near the impressive Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel at Loretto.

The stone church was built in 1901 near the site of Father Gallitzin's original log chapel. The entire cost was $150,000, a gift to the people of Loretto by Charles Schwab, at that time president of the United States Steel Corp. Schwab had been born in the area and spent much of his youth there.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II named the edifice a minor basilica. The humble site of prayer had become an honored place of pilgrimage.

Rita Reichardt writes from La Grange, Illinois.

Planning Your Visit

Mass is celebrated daily at 7:30 a.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m. Nearby is a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Alleghenies, which has been named the official Marian Shrine of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

Getting There

The picturesque mountain towns of Loretto and Gallitzin are east of Johnstown, Pa., and west of Altoona, Pa., off of Route 22. The basilica is at 321 St. Mary Street in Loretto. For more, call (814) 472-8551.