It’s the last place on earth you’d expect to get the creeps, but the Memorial Hall of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the enormous 6,000-seat Catholic church in Washington, D.C., always gives me a shiver. Or at least a small part of it does. The walls and pillars of the hall, which sits underneath the main church, are engraved with the names of noteworthy Catholics. On one pillar near a statue of the Blessed Virgin, one of the names is larger than all the others:
PRINCE PRIEST MISSIONARY APOSTLE OF THE ALLEGHENIES MAY 6, 1840
Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was one of the most remarkable priests in the history of the Catholic Church. Yet he was also involved in one of the most bizarre ghost stories in American history. It’s a story that Church histories and even Gallitzin’s biographers tend to ignore.
Gallitzin, born in 1770, was the scion of Prince Demetrius Gallitzin, the Russian ambassador to France and then Holland. Gallitzin senior was friends with Diderot, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment thinkers. His wife was the Countess Amalie von Schmettau, who was a devout Catholic and considered by some “the most brilliant woman in Europe” When her son was 17, he became Catholic, taking a new name, Augustine.
When he was 22, Gallitzin traveled to the new world, landing in Baltimore and entering St. Mary’s Seminary. Gallitzin was struck by the needs of the Church in America; it had only a handful of priests to cover the million square miles of the new world. Contrary to the wishes of his friends and relatives back home, Gallitzin decided to devote his life and fortune to his faith. He became a priest in 1795, going by the last name Smith so no one would suspect he was royalty. He was the first man to receive his orders in the original 13 colonies. Gallitzin was sent to Conewago, a tiny outpost in the wilds of what would become western Maryland, western Pennsylvania, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
While Gallitzin was training for his vocation, something strange was happening nearby, in a part of what was then Virginia. In the 1790s Adam Livingston, a Lutheran who lived on an estate in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and children, began to witness strange things in and around his house. Cattle died without explanation—a phenomenon that had driven Livingston to move to Virginia from Pennsylvania in the first place. Worse, the house was haunted. The Livingstone were kept awake at night by the sound of galloping horses and wagons charging through their living room. Furniture moved by itself and crockery smashed to the floor.
Worst of all was the clipping. The family often heard the sound of shears and scissors, and almost all of the clothing they owned was cut to pieces by the invisible force. The clothing was often cut into crescent shapes. Soon the town, many of whose members saw the frightening occurrences themselves, had names for the Livingston estate—”The Wizard’s Clip” and “Cliptown.”
Livingston tried everything to stop the hauntings. He had begged a local minister for help. This man, an Episcopal minister named Rev. Alexander Balman, was an ancestor of Robert E. Lee. Balman had been a chaplain in the Revolutionary War, but his courage did him no good with the Clip. One account claims that Balman “attempted an exorcism, and was famously abused by the scornful spirit, so that the prayerbook he used was found subsequently in one of the rooms, in a place which indicated no great respect for our admirable liturgy on the part of the ghost.”
Livingston then tried a local practitioner of what was called “brauchery,” a German term for someone who could conjure spirits. He even offered a local sorcerer double payment if he could do the job. Through it all, the disturbances continued. Gallitzin described what happened next:
Livingston almost came to the conclusion that Christ had no longer any true ministers on earth, and that those who pretended to be such were a set of imposters. He was determined, henceforward never to apply to any of them calling themselves ministers of Christ. A Roman Catholic peddler who happened to be one night at Livingston’s and who was much disturbed by the noise, which prevailed almost the whole night in the house, tried to persuade Livingston to send for a Roman Catholic priest, but Livingston answered quickly that he had tried so many of those fellows, he was not going to try any more of them.
Livingston then had a dream: He was climbing a mountain, and when he reached the top, he saw a beautiful church and a “minister dressed in peculiar robes.” Livingston was informed that a minister in robes had to be a Catholic priest. He traveled to Shepardstown, where he met Rev. Dennis Cahill. Livingston was stunned: It was, he said, the man he had seen in his dream.
Father Cahill, however, was skeptical of Livingston’s story. He thought the man was suffering from delusions, and it was only after Livingston’s neighbors begged Cahill to make a visit that he went to Cliptown. When Father Cahill said prayers and sprinkled holy water around the house, some money that had been lost suddenly appeared, as if being carried by invisible hands, and was laid on a mantelpiece. For several days, the house was quiet.
Soon the trouble started again, however, and the bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, decided to send another priest, Father Gallitzin, to conduct a full investigation. Father Gallitzin stayed three months and wrote a lengthy account of the spirits at the Wizard’s Clip, but the manuscript has been lost. However, there are surviving letters and accounts of those who knew Father Gallitzin. At first he was skeptical, but after interviewing witnesses and seeing the phenomenon himself, he changed his mind: “No lawyer in a court of justice did ever examine or cross-examine witnesses more strictly than I did” he wrote in a letter. Father Gallitzin also apparently didn’t have the stomach for exorcism that Father Cahill did. Rev. James Bradley, a friend of Father Gallitzin’s, recounted what the Russian had told him: “When Father Gallitzin was there, the disturbances having recommenced, he intended… to exorcise the evil spirits for good and all, but as he commenced, the rattling and rumbling as of innumerable wagons, with which they filled the house, worked so upon his nerves that he could not command himself sufficiently to read the exorcism”
Father Cahill ultimately managed to drive the spirits out. Livingston became a Catholic and claimed that strange things kept happening in his house—except now they were holy. He claimed to have frequently heard a “Voice” that instructed him in Catholic dogma. Another time he claimed a bearded, barefoot stranger appeared in his house and stayed for four days, instructing him in the Faith. Livingston donated some of his land to the Church. Part of it was used for a cemetery, and it is said that the first person buried there was “the mysterious stranger.” Indeed, to this day the grave is marked with a cross and the words “The Mysterious Stranger.”
Father Gallitzin dedicated every-thing he owned, which wasn’t much, to establishing a church in western Pennsylvania—specifically, in the wilds of the Alleghenies. The Russian government blocked his inheritance on the grounds that the money shouldn’t go to a Catholic, and Father Gallitzin was reduced to relying on charity. He built a log cabin 20 miles from the next closest home. His territory covered what now constitutes the diocese of Erie, Pittsburgh, and a large part of Harrisburg. The Catholic population steadily increased, and many stayed because of the low- or no-interest loans Father Gallitzin gave them on the land. In 1814 Father Gallitzin, in response to anti-Catholic slurs about “popery,” published “A Defense of
Catholic Principles,” which was very influential and, according to Church historians, led to many conversions.
Father Gallitzin died penniless in 1840. As well as Memorial Hall, the great upper church of the basilica in Washington has a reminder of him. He is the subject of the only stained-glass window in the sacristy.