Sister Baptized by Russian Prince

by Mary Paynter, OP

Father Demetrius Gallitzin (1770–1840)Did you know that many of our early Sisters were not born in Wisconsin, including our Four Cornerstones? Ignatia Fitzpatrick, OP, was born in Ireland; Clara Conway, OP, and Rachel Conway, OP, were natives of Canada; and Josephine Cahill, OP, was born in Pennsylvania. The history of each is intriguing, but perhaps Josephine experienced the most intriguing beginning of all. Born in 1832, Judith Cahill was baptized in Loreto (now Loretto), PA, by a Russian prince who had founded the little Irish-Catholic community and who was the only priest on that frontier—Father Demetrius Gallitzin (1770–1840).

Demetrius was the son of Prince Dimitri Gallitzin, Ambassador to France and the Netherlands from the Court of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Empress Catherine served as the godmother of the baby Demetrius at his Orthodox baptism. As a teenager, Demetrius adopted his Prussian mother’s religion and became a Roman Catholic. He traveled with his tutor to the United States, and after arriving in Baltimore he was encouraged by Bishop John Carroll to enter the newly established seminary in Baltimore—the first man to be educated in a U.S. seminary and to receive all his priestly orders in the new country.

In 1795, Bishop Carroll (in the manner of Bishop Edward Fenwick with the young Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP) sent the newly ordained Demetrius to minister in a vast area—from Maryland through the Alleghenies. He established a little frontier settlement in central Pennsylvania for Irish-Catholic immigrants seeking work as miners or farmers. Demetrius named it Loreto and built a little log church there.

The Cahill family had migrated from Ireland to Loreto to work in the mines. However, Judith Cahill’s father died in an accident before her birth, and her mother died giving birth to her in 1832. After Judith’s baptism by Demetrius, the orphan was sent to relatives—miners who had gone west in search of work and
who reached the new settlement of Shullsburg, WI, in the then-Michigan Territory.

Fr. Samuel established the parish of St. Matthew in Shullsburg in 1835, completing a log church there in 1841. Judith would have grown up as it was being built and was clearly impressed by the pastor’s work! “In the spring of 1848, Miss Judith Cahill in her sixteenth year offered her young life to the service of God” her obituary states. On March 1, 1848, Seraphine McNulty, OP, and Judith Cahill (a postulant) opened a school in Shullsburg. Miss Cahill’s students must have been startled when she appeared a month later clothed like Sr. Seraphine! Perhaps the students and their parents had been at the Mass in St. Matthew Church on April 2, 1848, when two young women—Catherine McKenna (Sr. Magdalen) and Judith Cahill (Sr. Josephine) were “received to the habit” by Fr. Mazzuchelli. Josephine remained as teacher in Shullsburg.

The summer of 1848 marked a special time for the little community then numbering six, as Fr. Samuel gave them their first retreat. He had translated for them from Latin, “Constitutions of the Sisters of St. Dominic established at Sinsinawa Mound in the year of Our Lord 1848.” He thus began for the novices their acquaintance with the heritage of the Dominican Third Order and the way of life that would shape the new community. None had yet made profession when in January 1849, Ermeline Routtan, OP, abruptly left, followed by the prioress, Seraphine. Fr. Samuel offered to assist the remaining Sisters in finding an established religious community. They spent a day in prayer, and then—as Sr. Clara urged—agreed to abide by the decision of the youngest, Rachel. The decision was clear—they were to remain together. On Feb. 5, 1849, Clara was elected prioress and Josephine, at age 17, was subprioress.

In May 1849, Clara and Josephine were assigned as teachers in the district school in nearby Hard Scrabble (Hazel Green). That summer witnessed their first profession when, on Aug. 15, 1849, at Mass in St. Dominic Church, Sinsinawa, Clara, Ignatia, Josephine, and Rachel knelt and promised to “live according to the Rule and manner of the Sisters of said Order until death.”

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