The Prince Who Became a Pauper…and a Priest

A little-known 19th-century priest, born into Russian nobility but eventually a Catholic missionary priest in America, lived a life that can be a model for us today.

In the year 1800, Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin celebrated Christmas Mass in the most backroad parts of western Pennsylvania. But at least he had a church. As he described it to his bishop, “It is about 44 feet long by 25 feet, built of white pine logs with a very good shingle roof. I kept service in it at Christmas for the first time, to the very great satisfaction of the whole congregation, who seemed very much moved at a sight which they never beheld before.”

What came to his mind as he prepared for the holy sacrifice? His recent bunking up in one-room log cabins with barely educated, barely catechized pioneers? His father’s discussions with the French atheist philosopher Diderot? His mother berating him so strongly that he fell backwards into the sea? His first experiences of America on landing in Baltimore just eight years ago? Or was it any of a whole host of other adventures, encounters, strange experiences that a man will have had when he leaves behind popular atheism and indifferentism to become a Catholic, gives up being a prince to be a citizen, and renounces wealth and influence to be a missionary priest on the American frontier?

All these questions are for the purpose of introducing Father Demetrius Gallitzin. While little known, he is a great American Catholic whom you should get to know better. He is a witness to our times of possibilities we may tend to despair of now: the possibility of discovering truth in a hostile intellectual and religious environment, of speaking charity and truth together to bigots, and even of overcoming psychological torments.

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Fr. Demetrius Gallitzin is a witness to the possibility of discovering truth in a hostile intellectual and religious environment, of speaking charity and truth together to bigots, and even of overcoming psychological torments.Tweet This

Demetrius was born to one of the most prestigious Russian families, the Gallitzins (or Golytsins) in 1770. His father was one of the highest ranking Russian diplomats, extremely wealthy, and a freethinker who was close friends with men like Diderot and the French writer Voltaire. His mother, Amalia Von Schmettau, was an Austrian countess, likewise a friend of intellectuals, and indifferent to the Catholic religion in which she was raised. Demetrius’s birth pointed directly to a life of luxury, importance, and godlessness while being a nominal member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Yet several unlikely small and interior adventures changed his mother’s life, and with it, his as well. First, only a few years into her marriage she told her husband that she was leaving behind the life of balls and dinners to supervise her children’s education personally. Second, she befriended an admirable Catholic family. At first only wishing for her children to act “like the Van Drostes,” she began to inquire into the principles animating her friends, and rediscovered her faith. Finally, her children, Mitri (Demetrius) and Marianne were received into the Church in 1787.

From here, Demetrius finally steps out as the principal actor in the drama of his life, but even in this, his mother had a critical role to play. In 1792, Demetrius was sent to America in order to put the finishing touches on his education as a noble. At the harbor in Rotterdam, Amalia began to cry, and her son began to have second thoughts about the whole trip. He should have known better than to express anything less than certainty to his mother; she shouted at him, “Mitri! Mitri! I am ashamed of you!” Demetrius backed away in astonishment and fell into the ocean. He came out a new man.

Upon arriving in Baltimore, he began to stray from the expectations of his parents. He saw the tremendous needs of the Catholic Church in the new United States and the yearnings of his soul responded. He entered the new Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained three years later.

Missionary zeal, specified as a huge thirst for adventure in God’s will, raged in the heart this interior, soft-spoken man. His first parish assignment answered this desire: Conewago was a “parish” that encompassed parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

Finally in 1795 came the event that would land him in western Pennsylvania for the rest of his life; a 150-mile sick call from McGuire’s Settlement, a frontier town past the Alleghenies. Noble extravagance, obedience to his calling, and love for souls all came together in a wonderful way to pull Father Gallitzin across the mountains and into the wilderness. Arriving there, he realized that God was calling him to stay.

It took four years to work out the details, but at the end of it all, there was Father Gallitzin saying the first Mass in the newly-built chapel in McGuire’s Settlement on Christmas Day, 1800. And there he would be, for the next 40 years.

He invested a fortune of his own in local tanneries, mills, and other sites of industry, not to mention the chapel. He raised orphans of the hard-living pioneers as his own. By himself, he rode around a mission stretching 100 miles in every direction; that is, until he had a bad fall from a horse and was unable to ride anymore. This did not stop him; he just harnessed up a little sleigh instead and bumped along in that to visit his beloved flock. Finally, he died May 6, 1840, and was buried in an $8 coffin.

Now, to stake one’s life, honor, or both on a dice roll, on a duel, on a woman, are things we associate with the aristocrat, with a person equipped with a strong will and resources to carry it out. And so it seems fitting to compare Father Gallitzin’s life, described above, as an enormous “ante” in a card game, only matched by the incredible lessons he brings to us Catholics living in our United States.

For example, ours is a time in which many of our country’s institutions are actively hostile to a sincere, fervent, and intellectually-grounded faith. What better way for us to counter these forces than by imitating Father Gallitzin’s mother? For example, not just avoiding profitless amusements and entertainment, but proactively seeking the welfare and betterment of our families. Even more than this, there is the importance of finding other Catholic families for fellowship and imitation. Finally, there is the willingness to put God’s will foremost in our dealings with our children, even if it means upsetting them.

Like his mother, Father Gallitzin is an exemplar of being forceful and kind, and this is evident in his apologetics. While his focus was on his mission to his fellow Catholics, he had occasion to rebut attacks on Catholicism from various Protestant ministers. He has this to say in one of his books: “Whatever differences on points of doctrine may exist amongst the different denominations of Christians, all should be united in the bonds of charity, all should pray for one another, all should be willing to assist one another; and, where we are compelled to disapprove of our neighbor’s doctrine, let our disapprobation fall upon his doctrine only, not upon his person.” It is a perfect message for us, not only in relationship to other Christians, but to non-Christians and even to the proponents of the fashionable immoralities of our time.

Finally, Father Gallitzin is a beacon of hope to those struggling with depression. He wrote a letter to his bishop in 1807 that hints at his encounter with this complex affliction that is all too common today. He addresses the physical dimension: sadness and doubt about his own “constitution” and his “heart” being “too susceptible of deep impressions from disappointments, losses, &c.” He addresses the raw experience of being “wonderfully low” for a long time. Then there is the emotional factor: “I can better feel than describe the gloomy and melancholy state of my mind, especially since the death of my mother.” Finally, he describes the effect of the solitariness of his life on his mood, and begs for a priest as a companion. This request would not be granted.

There is no suppression of his feelings, or a glib confidence that God will take the cross away from him. Instead, Father Gallitzin evinces profound humility on one hand, and a real search for natural means of help on the other. All of this is capped by the fact that he did endure by God’s grace, while being known to one and all in his part of Pennsylvania as a man ready for a joke, a good work, or prayer. We ourselves would do well to pray to this noble Servant of God for his help in our own, not so dissimilar challenges today.

  • Paul Joseph Prezzia

    Paul Joseph Prezzia received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. He now teaches at Gregory the Great Academy and lives in Scranton with his wife and child.

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