Oct. 5, 2016: Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos
New Orleans, the scene of Father Seelos’ final combats, and the city honored to have his holy remains in its ground, was not the city of origin of our subject. He was not an American. The priest who died in the cosmopolitan metropolis on the Missisippi was born in a humble stretch of land on the Lech River in Germany’s Bavaria: the beautiful and Catholic town of Füssen.
Füssen is a picturesque little town which lies sixty miles southwest of Munich, the capital of Bavaria. The population at the time of Francis’ birth consisted mainly of farmers, stone masons, cloth makers, and wheat mill owners. The heart of the town was Saint Magnus Monastery. Known as St. Mang’s to the locals, it was a Benedictine monastic foundation which also provided the parish church. Of the fifteen hundred inhabitants of the town, all but twenty were Catholics.
Francis was born into a good Catholic family. His father, Mang, was a hard-working cloth maker, known to be upright and devout. His mother, Frances, was a humble Hausfrau. It was, more importantly, her way to God. Known to have a simple and unashamed piety, she would habitually erupt into spontaneous prayer while carrying out her every-day chores.
And there were Seelos children. Mang and Frances had 12 children in their first twenty years of marriage: Elizabeth, the twins Mariana and Xaveria, Josephine, Ambrose, Francis Xavier, Antonia, Frances, Ulrich, Anna, Adam, and Kunigunda. Mariana, Xaveria, and Ulrich all died in early childhood.
Francis Xavier was born on January 11, 1819. He was baptized the same day, not due to any impending danger of death, but because that was the custom of the time. He was sickly in his youth, but showed signs of intellectual ability and, more importantly, of piety. His mother was an excellent tutor during his early years and formed his mind in both letters and sanctity. Frequently Frau Seelos would read the lives of the Saints to the youth. On one such occasion, the subject was Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit apostle of the Indies and the boy’s patron. After hearing the story, Francis declared “I will be a Francis Xavier.”
The Seelos house was a house of religious formation: Morning Mass, the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelus, and family spiritual reading after dinner were part of the daily routine. The rest of the day was filled with work for the parents and older children, and school for the younger ones.
Fast forward to the time spent at New Orleans as a Redemptorist priest
Father Seelos got on a train which brought him to New Orleans on September 26, 1866. Two School Sisters of Notre Dame were on the same train, and the three Religious spent the better part of the trip in holy conversation. The sisters were impressed with their meeting of the Redemptorist, who had always been known for his skill in directing sisters. One thing struck them as strange, however: When the sisters asked Father Seelos how long he was to remain in New Orleans, he told them he would be there only one year and then die of yellow fever.
When he arrived at his new assignment in New Orleans, it was like a gathering of old friends. Father Alexander, the priest who brought Father Seelos to America, Brother Louis Kenning, who was a novice with him, and Father Duffy, one of his own novices, were all assigned to the same monastery. Of the six lay-brothers and seven priests at the monastery, most of them were under Father Seelos’ rule at one time. He finally had his dream fulfilled: For sixteen years he was in various positions of authority in the Congregation; now he was happy to be a subject and not a superior. In the annals of the New Orleans community, Father Seelos’ arrival was recorded thus: “Today 8¼ P.M., Rev. Fath. Francis X Seelos, for… years Superior in our Congregation… arrived here as a simple father… With joy he received the command of his Superior and he seems more as a novice than an old Father, so desirous is he of being led rather than leading. His example confounds us and makes us wish we had been better and humbler and more really Redemptorists.” This is reminiscent of an earlier comment made by his provincial, “He is a Redemptorist body and soul.”
The work in New Orleans was parish work. The community of priests served a trilingual parish which had three different church buildings for the three language groups they served: St. Alphonsus’ (English), Notre Dame (French), and St. Mary’s (German). He was assigned to be the prefect of St. Mary’s, which made him responsible for its liturgical services and ordinary pastoral duties. Once at the new assignment, he took to it with his characteristic diligence. Father Neithart, whose vocation was spared in its infancy by Father Seelos’ direction, and who was under Seelos in the mission band, gives a testimony of his old master’s work in New Orleans:
“The amount of daily labor he performed as chief pastor of Saint Mary’s, prefect of the church, prefect of the brothers, spiritual director of the sisters and of thousands of seculars, was truly astonishing. None of us ever saw him idle for a moment. He never went visiting, never sat talking in the parlor, but was always to be found either in his cell writing or praying, or else in the confessional, in the schools, or on sick calls. Indeed, he literally killed himself with labor, mortifications, and exertions. Nevertheless, he was the most cheerful and humorous of the community.”
The reputation he carried with him as a saintly confessor and a miracle worker followed him to his final destination. He was sought after by Germans, French, Creoles, Negroes, and mulattos. The fact that he spoke German, English and French made him an ideal priest for the tri-lingual parish.
In this city, he cured the daughter of a man who was taking instruction from him. The child cried continuously, except when taken to a Catholic Church. Nobody knew that the man was taking instruction to be a Catholic; because his wife was a fanatical anti-Catholic, he kept the fact a secret. When a Catholic friend of the family took the baby to Father Seelos to be cured, he told the woman that he would baptize the baby first. The woman replied that the parents were not Catholic, so the baby should not be baptized. Father Seelos replied that he was instructing the baby’s father, and soon the mother would be a Catholic too, so he went ahead with the baptism, after which he cured the child. When she found out about his intentions of entering the Church, the man’s wife became furious. But true to the word of Father Seelos, her heart softened and she accepted the true Faith. Soon both husband and wife became Catholics.
Another cure involved a three-year-old girl who had a high fever. The family doctor despaired of being able to help the girl, so they took her to Father Seelos, who prayed over her and wrought a total cure.
There was an air of finality about his stay in New Orleans. Not only did he make known to the sisters mentioned above that he would die of yellow fever in New Orleans, but on several occasions while in the Crescent City, he made it known that he would travel no more, but die and be buried at St. Mary’s. The occasion of his death, he told the sisters, would be yellow fever, and he proved to be accurate in his prophecy. In September of 1867, a yellow fever epidemic was raging in the city. Bouts of the disease had been affecting New Orleanians for years. In 1847, the Redemptorist priest who led the Congregation to New Orleans was killed by the fever. But in September of 1867, the death toll was heavy. From two deaths per day in August, the victims jumped to sixty-seven daily. The clergy and religious of the city are still remembered for their heroic acts of virtue during the crisis. In fact, because of their exertion, they were themselves dying in great numbers. That month — September — Father Seelos started to show signs of fatigue.
The priests kept a list of their sick calls on a slate in the parlor of the rectory. The Fathers checked off the names on the list as they took care of them. They walked to each sick call, until a generous man provided them with a horse-drawn buggy, which helped them keep up their strength. Soon, though, exhaustion caught up with the priests. They started becoming sick themselves. The upper floor of the rectory became like a hospital, as twelve members of the community fell sick with the fever. Father Seelos was soon in that number, confined to his bed.
As he lay sick, two lay-brothers, Brother Gerard and Brother Lawrence both died on September 27. The situation looked bleak for many of the Redemptorists.
The doctor became sure that Father Seelos’ condition was now fatal, but he allowed Father Duffy to break the news to his confrere. “The doctor says you are going to heaven,” said the Irish priest. “Oh, what pleasant news! How thankful I am!” came the reply.
This dialogue happened on October 1. Father Seelos still had three more days left in his final agony. During his dying days he was a veritable prophet, working miracles, giving seemingly inspired counsel and rebuking at least one priest for his bad behavior.
The priest he rebuked was one Father Jacobs, who had been a student of the dying man in Cumberland. Seelos rebuked him for being more social-minded than a priest should be. He told him that if he didn’t change his ways, he would lose his vocation as a Redemptorist. When Jacobs came out of Seelos’ room, he was pale, and tears were coming down his face. Sadly, he didn’t heed the counsel and the prophecy proved true. Years later he was excused from the Congregation.
Others took his counsel better. Brother Lawrence, who spent a great deal of time at the deathbed of Father Seelos, was like a sponge, taking in all the spiritual direction he could. He would often interrupt the dying priest with questions. Once he asked the priest if the angels in heaven rejoiced more on the Feast of the Angels. “That’s for sure,” came the reply.
He edified the assembled religious around his bed when he said, “I never thought it was so sweet to die in the Congregation. I now begin to know what happiness it is to live and die a Redemptorist. Oh, let us love our vocation and strive to persevere in it. Then all will be right with us.” Shortly after that, he begged his brothers’ forgiveness for his imperfections and any scandal he had caused them. At the sound of these words, some of them began to sob aloud. One said, “If a saint speaks so, what will become of us poor devils, when we come to die?”
Doctor Dowler, the community physician, was amazed that the priest could hold on to life. In vain did he try to illicit complaints from the patient. Yellow fever made for a miserable death, yet Father Seelos would not make the slightest complaint.
Soon delirium set in. He would begin the words of Mass, “Introibo ad altare Dei.” Then he would begin a sermon in German, English, or French. He would ask questions, like “Who will give the priests’ retreat this year?” and then wander off to sleep. He made his brothers repress a chuckle when he asked, “Where am I, dead?”
The lay people, who were alarmed at the imminent demise of their precious treasure, were apprised of his condition by the priests. So great was his fame that even the secular daily paper kept track of his decline.
Several times, Brother Louis asked Seelos if he had seen the Blessed Virgin, since it is recorded in the lives of the saints that some had such visits during their last agony. “No” came the first reply on September 29. Asked again on October 2, he answered, “Yes! Once!” On October 4, “Yes! Twice!” This second visit of our Lady seems to have been his last in this life. At 4:30 PM, he was in the throes of death. He had been given the Last Rites and the Papal Blessing, with its plenary indulgence. The priests were holding a crucifix, a picture of our Lady, one of St. Alphonsus, and one of St. Clement Maria Hofbauer alternately up to his face, that he might kiss them as he lay dying. The priests and brothers started singing a hymn to our Lady written by St. Stanislaus Kostka. His countenance brightened when he heard the song to the Mother of God. Before the end of the hymn, with his eyes anchored to the Crucifix, the little man from Füssen yielded up his soul to God.
Father Geisen — the one who summoned the ambulance to the church on a mission — preached the funeral sermon for his dead brother. He did so in English, even though German was the official language of St. Mary’s. Since Germans, French, and Americans, both white and Negro were all present, the language most common to all had to be used. The whole congregation was in tears.
At least one cure happened when Father Seelos was laid in state. A woman named Christine Holle, who had been in bed for a month suffering from pains in her hip and abdomen, painfully made her way to St. Mary’s. She had heard how beautiful he looked in death and thought the miracle worker could cure her now that he was in heaven. She knelt beside his coffin and touched his hand. Instantly and permanently the pain left her. This was just one more fact which supported the opinion of the hundreds gathered for the funeral that the man laid out before them was a saint.
The secular newspapers in New Orleans wrote of his death, as did Catholic papers in Baltimore. A veritable chorus of praise rose up from all who knew him in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Baltimore. People came forth with their own memories of wonders wrought by the man they were all certain was a saint.
The year 1998 [when this article was originally written] marks the 131st since the death of the servant of God. The cause for his canonization was started in the early 1900’s, but did not go far and eventually died out. In 1966 his cause was re-opened. Pope John Paul II beatified the humble Bavarian on Sunday, April 9, 2000.
-Brother Andre Marie