Column by Jonathan Nagy
“…this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” – Luke 15:32
One of my favorite things to do is travel to new places, seeing new sites with my own eyes, and taking my own pictures of those sites, no matter how many I have seen on the internet. I try to take it all in and appreciate where I am and what I am doing when I make a visit somewhere. Often, I find myself in amazement of what I am seeing. I sometimes think to myself, “How great and wonderful would it be to live here and experience these things daily?” Well guess what? I do!
Many people become complacent with daily life, especially with where they live. We do not appreciate our roots as much as we should, and we go about our days thinking nothing special is happening around us. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to help us open our own eyes to our surroundings.
Several years ago, when I was a student in Mr. Ray Seymour’s Spanish 4 Course at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School, we were talking about what you call people from certain towns. I remember asking Mr. Seymour, “What do you call people from Ebensburg?” He replied, “Ebensburgians.” I said, “What do you call people from Cresson?” He answered, “Cressonites.” I followed up with, “Ok, what do you call people from Loretto?” He proudly stated, “Lucky,” for Loretto is his hometown. For the last 10 years, I have been a resident of the Loretto area, and I can agree with Mr. Seymour’s assertion. I am lucky!
When one visits Loretto, they cannot help but feel the presence of God in the small community. The 2020 census lists the population of this tiny borough as being almost 1,200, which includes student residents of Saint Francis University. Removing those students creates an even smaller number, but that does not mean the town is lacking in anything! The town is a pilgrimage site for many and sits in the backyard of most of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown!
This summer, like in most summers, Loretto sees thousands upon thousands of visitors and pilgrims, with buses arriving from all over the eastern portion of the United States. They come with good reason! This small town, founded by Revolutionary War veteran Captain Michael McGuire, is steeped in history and faith.
Years after his arrival to McGuire’s Settlement, Father Demetrius Gallitzin renamed the town Loretto, after Loreto, Italy. The work that Father Gallitzin did in the area over 200 years ago was just the beginning. Thousands come to visit his tomb outside of the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel. Many also visit his home, the Prince Gallitzin Chapel House. In addition to the Basilica, tomb, and Chapel House, the grounds also contain the Shrine to Our Lady of the Alleghenies and the historic Saint Michael cemetery that holds the remains of thousands, including Captain McGuire and Charles Schwab. All of that is just in one location in Loretto. As they say in infomercials, “But wait, there’s more!”
On the western side of Loretto, one will find the Carmel of Saint Therese of Lisieux. These cloistered Carmelite nuns first arrived in Loretto in the 1920s at the invitation of Bishop John McCort. In addition to paying for the construction of the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel, the construction of the Carmelite Monastery was paid for by Charles Schwab, whose sister became a nun at the Loretto Carmel, taking the name Sister Mary Cecilia of the Blessed Sacrament. I and the choir from the Basilica are always privileged and honored to provide the music for Mass for the Novena to Saint Therese every year. The holiness of this place fills the spirit!
Saint Francis University is more than just a school. The school was founded in the 1840s by the Third Order Regular Franciscans, who still run and operate it today. The Friars live on the grounds of the former Schwab Estate, which includes several large housing facilities as well as small ones, and the historic Sunken Gardens. Across the street at the college is the beautifully renovated Immaculate Conception Chapel and the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. There is also a cemetery on campus with the remains of all deceased TORs.
Exhausted yet from reading about everything in Loretto? Let’s look at another fact. On a weekday, there are no less than eight, yes eight Masses said in this tiny town! The Basilica, Immaculate Conception Chapel, Carmel, the Monastery, Saint Elizabeth Hall, and Bonaventure Hall all have at least one Mass a
day. Many Friars also offer private Masses during the day. This is overwhelming and amazing! During the summer, when the Basilica hosts the weekly outdoor Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies, large numbers gather in praise and honor of God.
I have to admit, I am one of those people that sometimes becomes complacent about my hometown, not fully appreciating what is there. When I reflect, I realize how special everything is in Loretto. One of those special aspects is that I get to play the historic Carnegie organ at the Basilica several times a week. The honor of doing so is not lost on me, as I consider it a blessing from God!
While everyone’s hometown is different, there is one home that we all share – the Church. The Catholic Church is not just a building. It is not just a religious organization. It is a living, breathing entity, represented by the children of God. I have attended Mass all over the place, including as far away as Hawaii and France. One thing that comforts me when traveling to new and unknown places is the consistency and formality of the Catholic Mass. It grounds me and makes me feel like I am still at home. The people that I encounter are there for the same purpose; to praise and honor God.
Just like our own families, each member of the family of God is different and brings different abilities. I believe that is one factor that makes the church so wonderful. Everyone comes together, bringing what God has given them, in order to help others get closer to God in their faith.
One thing that upsets me is to see how many people do not attend regular Mass or are no longer an active member in their parish community. Everyone provides reasoning why they are not there, with one of the newest being that they feel comfortable watching Mass with coffee from their recliner. Often, when I hear people’s stories about why they stay away, it reminds me of the Prodigal Son. Many feel like they have gone off and gone astray and that they would not be welcomed back. They feel that people would judge them for their past, not the future in front of them. Just like a “real” family, we need to encourage one another in faith, and invite them back with open arms. We should rejoice with those that come home, not chastise them for not having been there. As the father said at the end of the Prodigal Son parable, “Let us rejoice, for your brother who was lost is now found!”
We need to encourage others to come home, or for those who feel they have no parish, help them make a home. This does not have to be an elaborate invitation. Many times, individuals just want someone to listen to their story and be supportive of them. We all can do that! A gentle encouragement to attend a Mass is a small step. Knowing the interests and talents of individuals can also help, as we can give them direction as to how they can be an important member of the Body of Christ. I am always looking to add additional choir members, and I like to encourage people who love music and have song in their heart to consider joining us. There is no obligation, just a simple invitation.
Even simpler is the offer to pray with someone. This can be awkward for many, as it is something that perhaps no one has done with them in a very long time. If they decline, offer to pray for them. If people know that others are praying for them and supporting them, it could make all the difference. One of the Prayers of the Faithful that always impacts me is when we pray for those who have no one else to pray for them. We often think that those people are in far away places, but many are right here in our own communities, in our own home.
We need to appreciate what we have in our home, the Church. Just like my home community, Loretto, it can take those from the outside looking in to show us how wonderful the Catholic Church is and that they have an important role to play.
John Steinbeck once said, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.” While I appreciate the writings of Steinbeck, I completely disagree with him on this point. YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN. The home, the Church, will welcome you wholeheartedly. God calls all of us to Him. Sometimes that call comes through others.
If you are someone who has been away from the Church for a while, I encourage you to pray about returning. I also encourage you to reach out to those you know at a parish and speak with them about how you can come back. Place a call or schedule a visit with a parish priest. I also welcome you to contact me if you want someone to speak with about returning to the Church. Just like those we pray for who have no one to pray for them, I want each of you to know that you have a friend in me, and, more importantly, a friend in Jesus Christ.
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.