LORETTO, Pa. (WTAJ) — When you think of Catholic history, the first place that comes to mind is the Vatican in Rome, Italy.
You might also think about famous pilgrimages to religious shrines in Europe or Latin America. Or, you may think of ancient European saints, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century.
However, an important person in Roman Catholic culture lies just outside of your doorstep in a crypt located in Loretto, Pennsylvania.
Born in the Netherlands to a noble Russian family in 1770, Prince Demetrius Gallitzin, or the “Apostle of the Alleghenies,” was by all means someone expected to live the life of Russian nobility. His father’s employer was Catherine the Great, and his childhood was astute and filled with luxury.
Following his mother’s footsteps, however, Prince Gallitzin converted to Catholicism at age 17. This decision changed the course of his life.
His story in America started at age 22, when his mother sent him to the New World in order to protect him from the fallout of the French Revolution. The trip was intended to be temporary, but it became permanent in 1795, according to Penn State instructor Jared Fredrick.
“He joined the Catholic priesthood,” said Frederick, “and he was sent to these far reaches of west central Pennsylvania, where he eventually set up at a settlement known as McGuire’s settlement.”
That settlement, located in what is now Loretto, was considered a Catholic refuge and it was one of the first settlements in Cambria County.
It was also where Prince Gallitzin started his life’s work as a Catholic missionary. There, he built a chapel named after St. Michael the Archangel, soon becaming one of the most sought-after priests in the Western Alleghenies.
However, becoming a catholic priest was a huge sacrifice for the Russian prince. It meant leaving all the comforts of his old life behind forever to live a simple life of poverty on the frontier.
“For these reasons and more Demetrius Gallitzin was and continues to be celebrated,” said Frederick.
Gallitzin spent the rest of his life working in the remote areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia. He died on May 6, 1840 as an icon to his community and to the Catholic church in America.
In 1900, Pittsburgh steel magnate Charles Schwab, who grew up in Loretto, built an extravagant crypt for Gallitzin in order to commemorate his sacrifice and his life.
Gallitzin’s extraordinary crypt, located underneath his statue at the chapel of St. Michael the Archangel in Loretto, is now covered in letters. These handwritten prayers are from admiring visitors over the years, hoping he can send forward a blessing.
However, the last 15 years are perhaps the most significant since his death as his advocates have been fighting for him to achieve sainthood with the Vatican.
While this remote area of Pennsylvania is full of surprising things to learn, those wanting to see something especially unique ought to stop by Prince Gallitzen’s crypt.