Americans grow up with the legends of figures like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and countless others. However, very few know the remarkable story of the Catholic frontiersman, John Weakland.
A Russian Prince Turned Catholic Missionary
John Weakland’s defense of the Church begins with a Russian Prince, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin. Prince Gallitzin was born in the Hague. His father was a Russian diplomat, and Demetrius was baptized into the schismatic Orthodox Church. He converted to Catholicism in 1787. In 1792, his father sent him to the fledgling United States. He was ordained a priest in Baltimore in 1795.
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In 1799, Fr. Gallitzin went to Pennsylvania’s Allegany Mountain region as a missionary. In this sparsely populated frontier, he established the city of Loretto. He is buried in front of Loretto’s Basilica of St. Michael, which he founded.
In 1829, Fr. Gallitzin established a small log cabin church at a nearby settlement now called Carrolltown. He built this church on land donated by a local legend, John Weakland.
A True American Frontiersman
John Weakland was said to be the tallest, strongest, and saintliest man within 100 miles. His neighbors knew him to be quiet and peaceful. However, it was a different story when it came to dangerous wildlife.
Once, when alone in the woods, a ferocious bear attacked John. He engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the bear for several hours. John’s only weapons were a tree limb and the help of God. He proved to be mightier than the bear in both strength and God’s good grace. He defeated and killed the brute.
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On another occasion, John came upon a roving wolf. The wolf became Weakland’s prey. John caught and gagged the wolf. Then—being a loving father—he brought the wild beast back home, where it was domesticated and played with his children.
When England declared war on the United States in 1812, John enlisted at age 56. He fought on the Canadian border with the 142nd Pennsylvania Regiment.
Defense of Prince Gallitzin
The most extraordinary episode in the life of John Weakland was not his military service or adventures in the woods but his defense of the Church.
The frontiersmen of the Alleghenies were rowdy men in a rough land. Many, like John, were straightforward and honest. However, others practiced the vices associated with frontier life. The newly arrived Fr. Gallitzin soon became unpopular with some men because he would not promote their political ambitions. These dissatisfied men sought a way to get rid of Fr. Gallitzin.
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A pretext came in the form of five dollars that Fr. Gallitzin had spent from the parish funds. The men accused him of wasting this money. They formed a mob and stormed Fr. Gallitzin’s mission church in a village called Hart’s Sleeping Place. They insulted Fr. Gallitzin, demanding that he hand over the affairs of the mission church to them or face painful consequences. He refused.
For fear of the mountain men, most parishioners recoiled from the dangerous situation. The mountain men threatened to severely beat the priest, or worse.
Unlike his neighbors, John Weakland intervened. He grabbed a fence rail “which fitted his hand neatly.” As he entered, the mob quickly made way for the six-foot-four-inch giant, whose shoulder width almost matched his height.
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The usually introverted John then turned to the mob and made a speech. As everyone looked on, John began:
“I have fought with bears and other animals, but up to now, I have never done harm to a human being. Now it looks as though something else might happen. Go home, because if there is any more monkey business, or if anyone acts improperly about the house of God, or dares to lay hands on the anointed of the Lord, let him beware! As true as I live, I’ll crush his skull for him.”
Then, John menacingly raised the fence rail above his head. Suffice it to say that the aggressors abandoned their quarrel.
Incorrupt Defending Arm
John Weakland died on October 17, 1854. He was 96 years old. At his death, he had over 100 descendants. His body rests next to the St. Joseph’s mission church which he defended. However, he was originally buried eight miles away.
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When his body was moved to Hart’s Sleeping Place, several witnesses said that his right arm, which he used to defend the church and Fr. Gallitzin, was incorrupt.
In St. Joseph’s Church, a stained glass window depicts the heroic act of John Weakland. In the scene, John is shown holding a large fence rail as he towers above the mob that surrounds Fr. Gallitzin. Below the depiction is an image of an arm and the heads of a bear and wolf, symbols of John’s courage.
Catholic Need to Defend the Church
Modern Catholics should look to the Catholic heroes of the past. God rewarded John Weakland’s stand in defense of the Church and Fr. Gallitzin. God is delighted with those that defend His Church.
Today, the Church is still under attack. The modern threats are far larger than a mob of disgruntled mountain men. A whole culture of revolt and sin seeks to pull down the walls of Holy Mother Church.
The Church needs heroes like John Weakland, now more than ever. If Catholics stand in Her defense, God will surely reward them.
Ebel, Rev. John. (1955, July 8) “John Weakland, Like Davy Crockett? Frontier Giant Defended Fr. Gallitzin,” Register, National Edition.
Photo Credit: © Lisa Baker/ Photographer