If you met him at his work in the flourishing Catholic settlement of Loretto, Pennsylvania, you would have thought he was just a humble, hard-working, immigrant priest. You wouldn’t have guessed that he was a prince, from one of the noblest families in Russia. You would never have known that Catherine the Great was his godmother. You would never have known just what he gave up to be a Catholic priest.
Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was born in the Netherlands in 1770. His father was Russian nobility—Empress Catherine the Great’s envoy to the Hague—and his mother a German countess, Catholic by birth. He himself was baptized into the Orthodox Church but raised without much religious guidance, as his parents had grown distant from their own faiths in the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment.
But his mother returned to her faith when Demetrius was a teenager, and he followed her into the Church, taking Augustine as his Confirmation name. After a brief stint in the Russian army, his parents sent him on a tour of America. Traveling under the pseudonym “Augustine Smith,” to avoid drawing attention to his princely status, the 22-year-old was profoundly impacted by what he saw.
He resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to the evangelization of this place.
He was admitted to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and was the first priest to receive all his orders—from tonsure to ordination—in the United States.
After his ordination, Fr. “Smith” worked at various assignments in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, but was soon called away from there to his life’s true purpose. Responding to a sick call from McGuire’s Settlement—a large estate belonging to a Revolutionary War veteran that included 400 acres that he had donated to the Church—Fr. Smith envisioned a Catholic community there in the Allegheny Mountains. The people wanted him to stay, and he received permission to do just that.
Renaming the settlement “Loretto” for the town in Italy, Fr. Gallitzin (he eventually went back to his old name) used his own means to purchase large amounts of land around the original territory and to build mills, tanneries, and other establishments for the use of his flock. They built a log church—the church of St. Michael—but had to enlarge it to accommodate the growing congregation. Families and farms flourished, and the colony became, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the cradle of Catholicity in Western Pennsylvania.”
The former prince had been banking on receiving a just share of his inheritance to cover these expenses, but because he had become a Catholic and a priest, the Russian government disinherited him. Little of what was owed to him arrived, and it was necessary to elicit charitable donations—the likes of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Cardinal Cappellari, the future Pope Gregory XVI, were among the donors.
Fr. Gallitzin worked for forty-one years in this place—half of that time, unassisted—covering an enormous amount of territory. He refused multiple bishoprics, only accepting the office of Vicar-General of Western Pennsylvania to promote the welfare of the settlements.
He died in 1840, and is buried in a crypt in front of Loretto’s Basilica of St. Michael—the heir of Fr. Gallitzin’s original church. The current building, a magnificent stone structure, and the bronze statue that crowns Fr. Gallitzin’s crypt were donated by steel magnate Charles Schwab in 1901.
The royal Russian priest is on his way to sainthood—he was declared a Servant of God in 2005, and his official cause for canonization was opened two years later.
Fr. Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, Apostle of the Alleghenies, pray for us!
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