Following in the Footsteps

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Column by Jonathan Nagy

“It’s amazing how someone you’ve never met before can have such an impact on your life.” – Anonymous

There are many quotes and thoughts about the people we interact with, for good and for bad. Individuals come into and leave our lives daily. The belief is that God put everyone in our life path for a reason, whether long-term or short-term, positive or negative, meaningful or forgetful. The interactions that we have had with others has helped to make us who we are. Surprisingly, some of the individuals that have made the biggest impacts on our lives are those that we have never personally met.

It is difficult every year seeing another class graduate from Bishop Carroll Catholic High School. Of course, I am proud of the students and excited for their future, but it always feels like a piece of me is disappearing. The forty minutes I spend with my students daily is more time than I spend with most people in my life. They become my children, just as much as if I had my own children. They definitely make an impact on me, as I hope I have made at least some small, positive impact on them. They become part of my history and I become part of theirs, in hopes that those interactions create a better future for all.

As a history teacher, I devote a great amount of time relaying the past to my students. One thing that I emphasize in my class is the impact that individuals make in history. We look at some well-known Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, who have accomplished great things. We also look at some lesser-known people, who have also impacted history greatly. Everyone has a role to play, and all that have come before us have laid the path that we currently walk upon.

My busy schedule does not allow me to spend nearly the time that I would like conducting historical research. However, recently I have had the opportunity to research two individuals that, while I have never met them, have greatly impacted my life. These men are Father Demetrius Gallitzin and Bishop Howard Carroll. Gallitzin died in 1840 and Carroll in 1960, both long before I was born. These men made tremendous impacts on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown as a whole, and as I discovered, a great impact on me personally.

Many in our diocese know the story of Demetrius Gallitzin. He was a Russian prince who gave up everything to come to America, become a priest, and then devote his life to being the shepherd of the faithful in the Allegheny Mountains. This man, who is on the path to sainthood, did amazing things that impacted so many people. One action that he did has had a direct impact on me. In 1805, he adopted the McConnell children, who were left orphaned when their parents died in a horrible accident. After doing some family research several years ago, I discovered that I am a direct descendant of the McConnells. This man, who not only adopted Loretto as his new home, adopted a man whose lineage I come from. I remember being overwhelmed at this discovery and seeing the power of God at work. I had already worked as the music director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel, the parish that Gallitzin founded, for a few years before making this discovery. I did not grow up in Loretto, but I believe it was all in God’s plan to bring me to this wonderful town and to carry on the musical tradition began by my “adoptive” ancestor, Demetrius Gallitzin. Every time I sit down at the historical Carnegie organ in the grand Basilica, I am reminded that sitting not fifty feet from me are the earthly remains of such a holy man who, although I never met, has been such an impact on my life.

The other man I spoke of, the fourth Bishop of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, had a brief but impactful experience here in the Allegheny Mountains. Bishop Carroll came to the diocese as a well-known and well-respected man within the Catholic Church. He and both of his brothers were ordained priests, with his brother Walter serving in the Vatican Secretariat under Pope Pius XII and his brother Coleman serving as the Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh and later Archbishop of Miami, Florida. Howard Carroll was also the General Secretary of the NCWC, the precursor to the USCCB, before becoming Bishop. Although his time as Bishop was tragically cut short due to a stroke after only a little over two years in office, he was an ambitious man. Perhaps his most ambitious project was the creation of a Catholic high school in Ebensburg. That school, which would eventually bear his name, has been my home for over half of my life. After spending 4 years at the school as a student, I will be beginning my 17th year on staff as a teacher and an administrator. I am honored to work to carry on the mission that Bishop Carroll set out for this school so many years ago. Overseeing the creation of this school has helped shape and guide my life, as much as the actions of Demetrius Gallitzin have!

In the course of conducting my research, I came across this picture, originally published in the Catholic Register in February 1958. It spoke volumes to me. In this picture, newly installed Bishop Carroll was captured spending time paying his respects at the tomb of Father Gallitzin. It impacted me, much more than any other picture that I have come across and is a treasured discovery. I discovered pictures of Bishop Carroll with different popes and politicians, but here, in one picture, are two men, while generations apart, have made such an impact on my life. All of this significant history has happened right in our very own diocese.

In his welcome address to the diocese, Bishop Carroll remarked, “I am consoled, heartened and strengthened greatly by the knowledge that here in the Altoona-Johnstown area the seeds of faith, planted deep by heroic missioners of the early days, notably your well-beloved Prince Gallitzin, and watered and tended so well by zealous bishops and priests who came after, now flourish and flower so vigorously and impressively.” Bishop Carroll carried on that tradition, and now we must continue to carry on that tradition.

No one should ever underestimate the power of the will of God. I believe deep down that it was always in God’s plan for these men to come to west-central Pennsylvania and do the remarkable things that they did. As I mentioned earlier, God puts people in our lives for certain reasons, whether we know them or not, or have even met them. Father Gallitzin and Bishop Carroll are two men who did great things, all because of their faith in Jesus Christ and his mission on earth.

I am sure that everyone can think of individuals who have positively impacted them. We do not always realize in the movement of everyday life how much others help to shape us into the people that God has intended us to be. The more important reflection, however, is, “Are we positively impacting the lives of others by our thoughts, words, and deeds?” God has given everyone a distinct purpose and calling, but not all are open to listening.

How is God calling you to carry out his mission? Maybe some, just like Demetrius Gallitzin and Howard Carroll, are called to the priesthood, to lead the people. Others are called to be married family men and women, raising the next God-loving generation. Single people are also called to do the work of Jesus Christ in their own lives, by being there for others in ways that those with different vocations cannot be. We all have an important role to fulfill.

God does not expect everyone to develop a grandiose plan that is visible and public. We are all made different, and that is not the style of many. Often, the plan that we were expecting did not turn out the way originally imagined. Regardless, we are called daily to help others get closer to God through our thoughts, words, and deeds. As I say ad nauseum, “It costs nothing to be a kind person.” I have always found it ironic when I attend a wake or a funeral that it takes the death of someone for others to express how the deceased impacted their lives. Why do we wait until they are gone? Perhaps if we acknowledge the good that people are doing, it will inspire them to do more good actions, and inspire others to see what living a Christ-filled life is all about.

Demetrius Gallitzin once wrote, “As the days have gone by when it was possible for us to testify by martyrdom to God’s glory upon earth, it becomes our duty, like the toil-worn ox, to remain hitched to the plow in the field of the Lord.” Let us never forget that we are working in the field of the Lord to cultivate the faith in others. Just like Father Gallitzin and Bishop Carroll, our lives today can make a marvelous impact on those we meet and those who will never meet us. May we continue the legacy that Gallitzin started, and Carroll carried in our past, to make a better future for not only ourselves, but future generations. Demetrius Gallitzin and Howard Carroll, pray for us!

Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.