It was a cold and blustery day, December 22, 1770 when a baby boy was born to Dimitri and Amelia Gallitzin in the town of Hague, Holland. The baby’s father, Dimitri Alexeievitch Gallitzin, was a special messenger of Catherine the Great of Russia at The Hague. His mother, Amelia von Schmettau, was the daughter of an army guard of Frederick the Great, a Prussian King.
Because of his parent’s involvement in government affairs, the little boy’s early life was a very lonely one. Dimitri and Amelia had no time for their young son, called Mitri, who was cared for and consequently spoiled by his nurses. Mitri had an older sister Marianne who took delight in bullying him.
Little Mitri was not taught to say his prayers nor did he learn anything about God. His mother had been raised a Catholic and his Father a Russian Orthodox. But at the time Mitri was a little boy, his parents had stopped believing in the Christian religion. As time went on, Mitri’s mother became concerned that she was not spending enough time with her five-year-old son and moved to a quiet place where she could give more attention to him.
When the time came for Mitri’s education, his mother moved to Muenster and placed her son with Baron Franz von Fuerstenberg of the University of Muenster.
A great thing happened when Mitri was sixteen years old. His mother, realizing that she had not been faithful to God, returned to the practice of her Catholic faith and received the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. Her return to the Catholic Church was on August 28, 1786.
CONVERSION TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
At a very spectacular ceremony on Trinity Sunday, in June of 1787, the Princess’ children, Marianne and Mitri, were baptized and received into the Catholic Church. Prince Gallitzin, Mitri’s father, was not happy with what happened with his children. Mitri’s future as an army officer in the Russian Army was now in doubt, but the Princess Amelia, enthusiastic about her newly rekindled faith held firm in her son’s embrace of the Catholic Faith.
At this time, conditions in Europe made Mitri’s career as an army officer uncertain. Some thought Catherine the Great of Russia would send an army to France, with other allied forces, to free Louis XVI. But this did not happen. Mitri was thinking about joining the Austrian or Prussian forces. In the meantime, he received military training at the University of Muenster. It was at this time that the Princess got in touch with a priest, Father Brosius, whom she had known as a tutor. Father Brosius told her that he was planning to answer the request of the American Bishop John Carroll, who had sent out a plea for German-speaking priests to serve in Pennsylvania.
With the consent of her husband, Princess Amelia made arrangements for her son Mitri to accompany Father Brosius to the United States. She had argued that touring the United States would add to his education.
The Princess asked the Bishop of Hildesheim for a letter of introduction for Mitri to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore. It was decided that Mitri was to travel under another name when he went to the United States. He would use a form of his mother’s maiden name Schmet, a shortened form of Von Schmettau. Once he got to the United States the name soon became Smith.
Mitri’s mother and some close friends took him to Rotterdam where he was to board the ship. Seeing his mother’s tears, Mitri almost changed his mind about going to the United States. Once the Princess saw her son was deciding not to get on the ship, she scolded him; and soon he boarded the ship which was to carry him to the New World.
THE NEW WORLD
It was a long voyage to the United States, taking seven weeks to cross the ocean. The ship arrived in Baltimore on October 28, 1792; and Mitri, known as Mr. Smith, went with Father Brosius to the home of Bishop Carroll.
Bishop Carroll was not to be fooled. “Mr. Smith” was not an ordinary traveler - he was Prince Demetrius Gallitzin. He handed the Bishop the letter of introduction from the Bishop of Hildesheim. The Bishop permitted him to stay in the seminary near the church.
Mitri was not in the United State very long before he announced his decision to become a priest. He spent time in quiet prayer and study. He asked Bishop Carroll to admit him to the new St. Mary’s Seminary.
Bishop Carroll felt it would be better for Mitri not to enter the seminary at this time and postponed and immediate decision. Instead, the Bishop asked young Gallitzin to go with him to visit parts of the diocese, pointing out to him how primitive Catholic life was in the newly founded country. This experience only made Mitri more determined in his desire to become a priest and he continued to beg permission from the Bishop. Finally, Bishop Carroll was convinced of Mitri’s sincerity and wrote a letter of recommendation to the head of St. Mary’s Seminary.
FIRST AMERICAN PRIEST
On March 18, 1795, Mitri, age 25, was ordained “the first born of the Catholic Church in America.” There had been one other priest, Father Stephen Baden, ordained earlier by Bishop Carroll; but he had received all previous Orders in France. Father Gallitzin was the first priest to be privileged to receive all of his Orders for the Priesthood in this country, from the hands of America’s first bishop.
Mitri, who is now known as Father Gallitzin, began his priestly ministry with great enthusiasm. This twenty-five year old priest preferred at that time, however, to be known as Father Augustine Smith. St. Augustine was his patron saint.
Father Smith asked the Bishop to send him to the hinterland. His first visit was a forty-mile trip to Georgetown. From there he traveled another 150 miles, visiting many places on the way, ending at Port Tobacco on the Potomac River. Some time later Bishop Carroll sent Father Smith to Conewago, Pennsylvania, the center of much missionary activity.
It is well to remember that in the 1790’s there were no parishes as we know them today. A priest’s work at this time was mostly missionary and the churches were small mission stations. Catholics were scattered on farms and had to travel several miles by foot or horse and buggy to attend Sunday Mass.
While Father Smith was staying in Conewago he received his first call to the “Far West” - the call which took him to Loretto. Susan Burgoon was seriously ill, and desired to see a priest. The young priest answered this request, and rode one hundred and fifty miles to McGuire’s Settlement, located on the fourth Allegheny ridge, to visit the non-Catholic wife of John Burgoon, who was very concerned for her life.
Father Augustine Smith set out for the “far west” of the Alleghenies (the Rocky Mountains had not yet been discovered), to the sparsely inhabited ridges of Pennsylvania. Late in the evening of the fourth day of the trip, Father Smith arrived at McGuire’s Settlement. Using a lantern for light, he prayed for Susan Barlow Burgoon, gave her last rites and received her into the Catholic Church. The next morning Father Smith celebrated the first Mass at McGuire’s Settlement in Luke McGuire’s cabin.
After a period of time Mrs. Burgoon grew stronger and stronger. All of the settlers were happy. Father Smith was impressed with the warm welcome, the beautiful countryside and the promise of future growth for the church in this area. When he returned to Baltimore he asked Bishop Carroll to appoint him pastor of McGuire’s Settlement. Bishop Carroll needed time to consider the matter. The settlers themselves begged Bishop Carroll to send Father Smith to them since more and more Catholics were moving into this distant area. A few years later, in 1799, the Bishop granted Father Gallitzin’s request, and assigned him to serve as parish priest for the people of McGuire’s Settlement.
Bishop Carroll and Father Smith both knew that the people of McGuire’s Settlement could not support a priest. Father Smith had been receiving money from his mother, Princess Gallitzin, so there didn’t seem to be any financial concern. According to Russian law, Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, as a Catholic priest, could not receive his father’s inheritance. His mother, however, promised him financial support.
THE WILDERNESS PROJECT
In October 1799, Father Smith set out for McGuire’s Settlement in a two-horse prairie schooner. He took with him an altar, sacred vessels, vestments, altar-wine, flour for making hosts, coffee, a bed, and a small chest of drawers for his clothing. He also carried a library of over a hundred books.
THE FIRST CHURCH
It was Christmas, 1799, and the new log cabin church in the settlement was ready in time for Midnight Mass. This country’s first president, George Washington, had died just ten days before. The little church was called St. Michael’s. For several years St. Michael’s Church was the only Catholic Church between Lancaster, Pennsylvania and St. Louis, Missouri. The simple church was 44 feet long and 25 feet wide, unheated, with small windows and a shingled roof.
Father Smith’s house, built of pine logs, was near the church. It measured 16 feet by 14 feet with a small kitchen adjoining and a stable.
The pioneer pastor baptized the first infant born in the settlement on April 8, 1800. The baby son of Charles and Mary Bradley was named Joseph. Many other baptisms, not of infants, but of young children, some as old as twelve, soon followed. There had been no priest to baptize these children before Father Smith arrived in the settlement.
When the young priest started his parish register, he began to write his name, Demetrius, then crossed out the Russian name and signed himself “Augustine Smith.” Seven years after he was naturalized and became a citizen of the United States, an Act passed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania authorized him to establish his name, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, and to enjoy all of the benefits accruing to him under the name Augustine Smith.
The first marriage to take place in the settlement was that of Elizabeth Burgoon and Nicholas Cherry. Elizabeth was the daughter of the sick woman whose desperate call had brought Father Gallitzin to McGuire’s Settlement in 1795.
As time went on, Father Gallitzin realized what a big task he had set for himself. He was often imposed upon and even taken advantage of because of his generosity and trust. In a letter written to Bishop Carroll, Father Gallitzin reported that over a period of six months he had spent four hundred English pounds. In the closing lines of his letter he thanked the Bishop for his advice and for the chocolates which the Bishop had sent him.
FOUNDING OF LORETTO
Father Gallitzin envisioned a town - a town which would grace the church and which the Church would bless. He chose his sight with care. His military training had taught him engineering fundamentals, and he marked out Loretto on the southern slope of a pleasant hillside. He ran the main streets on parallel lines conforming to the contour of the hill. He divided the town into 300 house-lots and named it Loretto after the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto in Italy.
Father spent about $150,000.00 during his life on the town of Loretto. He sold lots for a meager down payment or for a mere promise of payment. Because he never pressured anyone for further payment, many of the lots were actually given away. His mother continued to send him money; but after her death, Father Gallitzin found himself without funds. Father Gallitzin’s sister had promised to send him money but, after her marriage to a Russian prince, seemed unable to keep her earlier promise of financial help. At times, Father Gallitzin suffered from poverty, but none of his parishioners ever knew his true state of affairs.
For over thirty years Father Gallitzin handled all of the missionary activity in this area. He established missions in Bedford, Carrolltown, Ebensburg, Frankstown, Huntingdon, Johnstown, Newry, Sinking Valley, the Cresson Summit and Somerset, just to name a few. In 1829 Father Patrick Rafferty came to help and was sent to Ebensburg. Father Rafferty stayed in the area only a short time.
THE NEW DIOCESE
Early in the nineteenth century, it became evident that the Catholic population had increased to the point where it was necessary to subdivide the Province of Baltimore. In 1808 the Diocese of Philadelphia was formed and included the entire state of Pennsylvania. Bishop Michael Egan was named to the new diocese. In 1811 Bishop Egan, on his way to Pittsburgh, stopped at Loretto. Father Gallitzin was thrilled to have the Bishop as a visitor.
It was some years later, in 1834 that Father Gallitzin was sent an assistant. Father Peter Lemke’s first meeting with Father Gallitzin took place on a road between Loretto and Hart’s Sleeping Place near Carrolltown. Father Gallitzin was seated in a sleigh drawn by two horses. When Father Lemke saw the priest he asked: “Are you really the pastor of Loretto?”
“Yes, I am he.”
“Prince Gallitzin?” asked Father Lemke.
“At your service! I am that very exalted pastor,” he laughed.
Father Gallitzin’s simplicity impressed Father Lemke. Years later he wrote a Life of Gallitzin showing the founder of Loretto as he truly was: a priest, hero and pioneer.
In 1817, eighteen years after the construction of the first log cabin church, Father Gallitzin was able to build a larger church; and in 1832 he built a larger house for himself with and adjoining chapel. In this chapel Father Gallitzin spent long hours in prayer. His larger house soon was opened to the care of orphans in the area. This house in now open to the public, and is called the Prince Gallitzin Chapel House.
DEATH OF FATHER GALLITZIN
Prince Gallitzin was growing old. In 1834 he was nearly sixty-five. One evening he was dismounting from his horse after returning from a sick call. Father Gallitzin slipped and fell when his horse made a sudden start. A man who worked for him helped him into the house. Father had injured a bone in his leg, and he could never ride a horse again. Poor Gallitzin. He was so used to putting his hand on his horse and leaping over the saddle, and now he couldn’t even walk without a cane.
It was during Lent in 1840 that Father Gallitzin began feeling a terrible pain in the leg he had injured years earlier. The doctor recommended that he stay in his room and keep warm and quiet. However, since it was Holy Week, Father Gallitzin got out of bed and went over to the cold church to hear confessions. On Easter Sunday he offered Mass and preached a sermon on the Resurrection. It was to be his last sermon. His people were greatly saddened, for they knew that Father Gallitzin was a very sick man. His leg hurt him so much now that the doctor decided to perform an operation. There were no anesthetics at that time, but Father Gallitzin bore the pain without so much as a moan.
Sensing that his life was fading, his people came from far and near to visit him. He could only smile as a sign of welcome to them. He lay quiet all day, for the pain in his leg was not so great after the operation.
Two days later, May 6, after receiving the last rites of the church, Father Demetrius Gallitzin died at the age of sixty nine. His body was placed in a simple wooden coffin.
On May 9, there was a funeral procession in Loretto. The procession slowly moved up one street and down the next. After a funeral Mass, Father Gallitzin’s body, carried in a wooden coffin, was buried in the small church graveyard.