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Diocese of Altoona

Suffragan see of the province of Philadelphia

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Altoona, Diocese of, a suffragan see of the province of Philadelphia. The city of Altoona is situated on the eastern slope of the Alleghany mountains, almost midway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and at an elevation of 1,175 feet above sea level. The name is undoubtedly of Indian origin, being formed from the Cherokee word Allatoona, which signifies high land of great worth. It is a little over fifty years old, and is mainly the creation of the Pennsylvania railroad, whose vast workshops, employing about fourteen thousand men, are located there. The population of the city of Altoona is (1906) sixty thousand, about one-fourth of which is Catholic. There are in the city four large Catholic churches with flourishing parish schools. St. John’s Church is used as the procathedral.

The Diocese of Altoona was established May, 1901. It comprises the counties of Cambria, Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, and Somerset, taken from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the counties of Center, Clinton, and Fulton taken from the Diocese of Harrisburg. The area of the diocese is 6,710 square miles. Its Catholic population (1906), of which a considerable portion is made up of various foreign nationalities employed in the mining districts and the manufacturing town of Johnstown, is about 60,000. Within its narrow limits is the very cradle of the Catholic Church in middle and western Pennsylvania. At the beginning of the last century the whole territory was part of the extensive parish of the famous Russian convert, the prince-priest, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin (q.v.). This devoted missionary founded the mission of Loretto in Cambria. County, Pa., and made his home there. He expended his vast fortune in the interests of religion. He reached Loretto as early as July, 1799, and died there May 6, 1840. A beautiful memorial church erected by Charles M. Schwab marks the lasting esteem in which this distinguished man and noted missionary is held. It was Father Gallitzin’s wish and prayer that Loretto should become a bishop’s see. As early as 1820 he wrote to Archbishop Marechal: “Several years ago I formed a plan for the good of religion, for the success of which I desire to employ all the means at my disposal when the remainder of my debts are paid. It is to form a diocese for the western part of Pennsylvania. What a consolation for me if I might, before I die, see this plan carried out, and Loretto made an episcopal see, where the bishop, by means of the lands attached to the bishopric, which are very fertile, would be independent, and where, with very little expense, could be erected college, seminary, and all that is required for an episcopal establishment.” He adds that “no bishop has ever penetrated to the distant missions of Western Pennsylvania. There are many missions which have never seen a bishop and never will, at least until a bishop is established on the mountains, and one willing to fulfill the duties of this charge, even at his own expense, without waiting for other recompense than that which conies from above.” The prince-priest’s hopes were never realized, though an effort was made when the present diocese was talked of, to have the see at Loretto rather than at Altoona.

Among the many pioneer priests who have labored within the limits of the present diocese may be mentioned Father James Bradley, of Newry, who lived to celebrate his golden jubilee in the priesthood; Father Thomas Hayden, of Bedford; Father Lemke, who was a Prussian soldier and a convert from Lutheranism; Father John Walshe, of Hollidaysburg. Father Lemke founded the mission and village of Carrolltown, where at present there is a Benedictine priory. Among the Catholic laymen of early days is a family of the Luthers who are said to be direct descendants of Martin Luther and who have given more than one member to the priesthood. The Collins family has also been prominent in advancing the interests of religion.

Next to Loretto in historical importance is Carrolltown, founded in 1839, and named after Archbishop Carroll, the first American bishop. It is said that a colony of French Trappist monks sought to establish a house of their order there about the beginning of the last century. Driven from France during the revolution of 1791, a number of the monks found a temporary home in Switzerland, where they remained until the influence of the French government began to be felt in that country in 1798, when they were again forced to flee. They passed into Russia, and soon after into Prussia, and finally turned their faces towards the New World under the guidance of Father Urban Guillet. The little party landed in Baltimore, September 4, 1803, and went to the vicinity of the future Carrolltown, but failing to make a foundation there, they next proceeded to Adams County, Pa., and, leaving that place also, they went further west, finally settling down at Florissant, Mo. The first settler near Carrolltown was John Weakland, one of the most powerful and daring of men, and the most famous Catholic pioneer of Western Pennsylvania. About the year 1830 he donated four acres of ground for the site of a church, and under the direction of Father Gallitzin a log church was built, and dedicated to St. Joseph. Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick visited this church and administered confirmation there October 16,1832. The first bishop of Altoona, the Rt. Rev. Eugene A. Garvey, was consecrated in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton, Pa., September 8, 1901, and was installed in St. John’s Pro-Cathedral, Altoona, September 24. There has been a steady growth of the Catholic population, especially from immigration. Almost every nationality is represented; Slays and Italians predominate in the mining districts. There are some scattered Greek and Syrian Catholics within the limits of the diocese, who are visited occasionally by priests of their own nationality. The diocese is amply supplied with priests, and almost every parish has its school. The relations of the Catholic with the non-Catholic body are all that could be desired, the good influence of the early Catholic settlers having done much to disarm prejudice. Catholics are well represented in the social, business, and professional life of the community.

In the diocese there are seventy-four secular priests and sixteen regulars; with forty lay brothers, members of religious communities; about three hundred members of the various sisterhoods, chiefly engaged in teaching; and thirty parish schools educating seven thousand children. The Franciscan Brothers conduct a college at Loretto, with an average attendance of about one hundred students; the Sisters of Mercy have a flourishing academy at Cresson, with about the same number of young ladies. There is a children’s home at Ebensburg, in charge of the Sisters of St. Joseph, with about seventy-five inmates.


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