Friday, August 27, 2010

Father Gallitzin: Outstanding Pennsylvanians 3

It was called McGuire's Settlement first, after its original white settler. Then it came to be talked of as the Catholic Colony. But when a priest arrived in 1799 it was set on its way to being called Loretto, Pennsylvania--the name it still has today. And the priest, introduced to the community as Father Augustine Smith, came to be known by his birth name: Demetrius Gallitzin. Also as the Apostle of the Alleghenies. For his priestly work he is a candidate for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. For his work in helping to build modern Pennsylvania he has been honored with a Pennsylvania State historic marker. His presence is felt in the small village of Loretto as if he would return at any moment from his priestly circuit riding.
But he can't have been at home very much of the time. He was above all a missioner priest, one of the few clergymen available to serve a sparse Catholic population scattered all over the rugged Allegheny Mountains. When he built a church in Loretto it was believed to be the only Catholic church between Lancaster, Pennsylvania and St. Louis, Missouri.
It is hard to imagine a man farther removed from his origins than Father Demetrius Gallitzin (1770-1840). Born into a noble Russian family and descended as well from a king of Lithuania, Gallitzin was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. His father was a diplomat, a man of wealth and culture. That sort of life seemed to await the son as well.
But through the influence of his mother (a German-born Catholic), the boy became a Roman Catholic. Then, when he came on an educational trip to the United States, he decided to stay and study for the priesthood. He was the first person to go through the entire course of study for the priesthood in the United States. And he never returned to his family.
As he rode alone through the Pennsylvania woods and mountains, on his way to say mass or to succor a dying person, did he ever pine for the easy life he might have led as a noble in his homeland? Possibly. More likely, though, he felt he had chosen a higher and nobler path. Those who feel that to serve is better than to be served would doubtless assent to that proposition.

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