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Blessed Bios: Francis Xavier Seelos

Soon, the New Orleans Saints might be adding one more to their number. Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos is gaining plenty of notoriety, and not just here in Louisiana. His cause for canonization should have several miraculous healings to choose from. Miracles seem to be pouring out of his National Shrine on Josephine Street in New Orleans. The shrine, its museum, and St. Mary of the Assumption church are all worth a visit, especially if you or someone you know is in need of a miracle.

The life of Father Seelos, as he's most often called, was full of amazing historical confluences for such a uniquely humble man, including encounters with other saints and even President Lincoln. His final days, too, were remarkable for the palpable taste of heaven on earth, an experience which captured the attention of the entire city of New Orleans. 

I've also included his intercessory prayer at the end. Make sure you learn about this remarkable man, so he can intercede for you as he has for so many others!

Seelos was born and baptized on January 11, 1819 in Fussen, Germany. During the celebration of Christmas which immediately preceded his birth, in a small chapel elsewhere in Germany, one of the most beloved carols of all time was performed for the very first time. Seelos was thus born alongside "Silent Night." 

Seelos' childhood home of Fussen is known for the picturesque Neuschwanstein castle, but also for the Benedectine Monastery of St. Mang or St. Magnus, who is also the city's patron saint. Not only was Seelos' boyhood parish church named for St. Magnus, his father also bore the name. 

It is interesting that Seelos would later be invoked for the healing of humans, because his boyhood patron, St. Magnus, has long been invoked for the healing of animals, especially cattle - not to mention protection from snake bites! Perhaps St. Magnus kept a watchful eye on Seelos even after the young priest moved to the New World. 

Seelos, for his part, had his eye on the priesthood from a very young age and entered seminary in 1842. He originally entered as a diocesan priest, but God had plans for him beyond the Diocese of Augsburg. Soon after entering seminary, Seelos met the missionaries of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the "Redemptorists". 

The Redemptorists were founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori, whom Saint Pope John Paul II called "a missionary who went in search of the most abandoned souls." Like Liguori, the Redemptorists are the shepherds of the most lost of the world's lost sheep. Thus, Seelos came to minister to the German speaking immigrants to the United States. 

The New World

Sailing from Le Havre, France, Seelos arrived in New York City on April 20, 1843. He would be followed by over six million more German immigrants over the next half century. German-speaking priests were already in desperate supply - In 1836, when Seelos' fellow German and Redemptorist, Saint John Neumann, arrived in New York City, there were only three German-speaking priests in the entire Diocese of New York City. In the 1840s, German-speaking districts would pop up in cities across America. With each new district, a new Catholic church would spring up, requiring thousands of more German-American priests. 

Two Christmases later on December 22, 1844, Seelos was ordained a priest in Baltimore, Maryland at the Redemptorist Church of St. James. Soon thereafter, he was moved to St. Philomena parish in Pittsburgh. There, an amazing historical confluence occurred. He served as the assistant pastor to (another) great saint, Saint John Neumann. Regarding their relationship, Seelos said: "He has introduced me to the active life" and "guided me as a spiritual director and confessor." 

Even in proximity to the great Saint John Neumann, Seelos' fame began to spread. His growing skills as a spiritual director and pastor while in Pittsburgh have been elsewhere described:

His availability and innate kindness in understanding and responding to the needs of the faithful, quickly made him well known as an expert confessor and spiritual director, so much so that people came to him even from neighboring towns.

In fact, even though many years would pass since he had moved on from Pittsburgh, it would be here that rumor would begin to spread of his miraculous intercession following his death. 

Faithful to the Redemptorist charism, Seelos practiced a simple lifestyle. He may have been describing his own daily routine when giving the following advice for a spiritual regime:

In the morning, get up at five o’clock; in the evening to bed at ten. Daily, if possible, attend Mass, and in the afternoon a visit to the Blessed Sacrament if there is some free time at your disposal. Every day try to say five decades of the Rosary. During your work see in your mind one or the other of the Stations of the Cross and then, in spirit, make personal applications about the mystery meditated upon. At the beginning take one Station to which you ordinarily have a great devotion and gradually you will be in condition to visit, one by one, all the fourteen Stations in a spirit of contemplation during your work and to make practical applications in your heart.[1]

Seelos was especially concerned with the instruction of little children in the faith. Not only did he have a special tenderness for children, but he viewed their proper instruction as critical to the growth of the Christian community. His simple manner of preaching would have reached children, as well as adults. His preaching, always rich in biblical content, was understood by everyone, regardless of education, culture, or background. His confessional, too, was visited by all. He once wrote, “I hear confessions in German, English, French, of Whites and of Blacks."[2]

The Pauline Period, Seelos' Missionary Journeys

In 1854, Father Seelos was transferred from Pittsburgh back to Baltimore. He would never again spend so much time in one place. The American Redemptorists recognized Seelos' special gift for teaching and training youth by naming him as the Prefect of Students. Above all, Seelos "strove to instill in these future Redemptorist missionaries the enthusiasm, the spirit of sacrifice, and apostolic zeal for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the people." [3]

Pittsburgh would try to reclaim Seelos, and such as their Bishop. In 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael O’Connor recommended Seelos as the man most qualified to succeed him. Seelos wrote Pope Paul IX explaining his inadequacy and pleading "to be liberated from this calamity." [4] The pope ultimately did excuse him from this responsibility. This would begin something of a Pauline period of missionary journeys for the Redemptorist priest. 

In the succeeding years, Seelos dedicated himself to the life of an itinerant missionary crisscrossing America and preaching in English and German. He would spend time in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. 

At the peak of the Civil War, the U.S. government enacted new draft laws requiring every able-bodied male to make himself available for military duty. Discontent over the draft boiled over in the New York City draft riots, the largest insurrection in American history. President Lincoln was forced to divert troops fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg to restore order to the city. 

Seelos, then Superior of the Redemptorist seminary, traveled to Washington to intercede before Lincoln himself and plead for an exemption from military service for the seminarians. This would mark another extraordinary historical convergence in the life of this remarkable priest. Lincoln, according to Seelos' own account, was extremely receptive to the priest's prayer and promised to do all in his power to answer it. Throughout the remainder of the war, none of Seelos' students were drafted.

New Orleans

Father Seelos received his final assignment in 1866, while briefly serving as a parish priest in Detroit. His time in New Orleans, at least in life, would also prove short. He embarked for Louisiana by train after making a ten-day retreat and general confession at St. Michael's in Chicago. His Redemptorist brothers there recounted that Father Seelos left for Louisiana having clearly seen in advance what awaited him there and knowing he would never see them again.[6] 

Seelos must have received a very specific vision of the remainder of his life indeed, based on the account of two School Sisters of Notre Dame which he met aboard the train. When they inquired as to the length of his stay in New Orleans, he remarked that he would remain in New Orleans for a year and then die of yellow fever.    

In New Orleans, Seelos served as pastor of the Redemptorist church of St. Mary of the Assumption, which is now home to the National Shrine of Blessed Selos. There, he was known as being "joyously available to his faithful and singularly concerned for the poorest and the most abandoned." 

The Redemptorist Community Chronicle includes an account of Father Seelos being passed the reins of Superior over the large community of priests and students in New Orleans. According to the Chronicle, he more closely resembled a novice than the well-traveled and accomplished priest he was, because he was "more desirous of being led than leading." His example "confounded" his brothers, calling them to a place where they became "humbler and more Redemptorist" than before. According to Father Benedict Neithart, C.Ss.R., Seelos was generally regarded by all the members of the community as a "living Saint." 

True to the model established by Saint Alphonsus Liguori, after a life of serving the "most abandoned", Father Seelos dedicated himself to caring for the victims of yellow fever, as well as his many other duties. Father Neithart recounts never once seeing Seelos idle during his final year and "literally killing himself with labor, mortification, and exertion, but nevertheless [being] the most cheerful and humorous of the community." 

Epidemics of yellow fever had been plaguing the port city since just before Seelos' birth. In 1867 alone, over three thousand people would succumb to the illness in New Orleans.[7] The total number of yellow fever victims in 1867 - 3,107 - would include at least one future saint and martyr. In September of that year, exhausted from endless hours of visiting and caring for the sick, Seelos contracted the disease. 

For several weeks, he patiently endured his illness and received a constant stream of visitors. During this time, Seelos is also reported to have placed his hand to his heart and said, "I feel like I have traveled enough. I shall never leave New Orleans."[8] 

He continued to receive people for the Sacrament of Confession even when, because of the advance of the fever, he struggled to remember the words of absolution and even to breathe. Nevertheless, a pleasant smile and cheer never left his face. His brothers reported that the change in his color clearly indicated the degree of his sufferings:

He had not merely turned yellow from jaundice, but brown like a Spaniard. No one could look at him for a long time without being moved to tears with pity.

Masses were being said almost constantly for Father Seelos' recovery, and even the New Orleans newspapers carried a daily update of Seelos' health. Doctors attributed the final days of his life to a miracle. In these final days, two of his brother priests, including the Father-Rector of the community, came to his bedside with knee injuries and asked for healing. Both were immediately cured. 

When death appeared close at hand on Wednesday, October 2, Seelos expressed his lifelong desire to die on a Friday, as Jesus had. Father Seelos miraculously endured another two days and passed on to eternal life on Friday, October 4, 1867, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, at the age of 48.

His Holiness Pope John Paul II, proclaimed Father Seelos "Blessed" in St. Peter's Square on April 9th of the Solemn Jubilee Year 2000.  His Feast Day is celebrated on October 5.

Prayer for the Intercession of Blessed F. X. Seelos

O my God, I truly believe Thou art present with me. I adore Thy limitless perfections. I thank Thee for the graces and gifts Thou hast given to Father Seelos. If it is Thy holy will, please let him be declared a saint of the Church so that others may know and imitate his holy life. Through his prayers please give me this favor [here mention your special intention].

[1] Hoegerl, Carl W., editor and translator. Sincerely Seelos: The Collected Letters of Blessed Francis XavierSeelos (New Orleans: The Redemptorists/Seelos Center, 2008).
[2-5] From the Homily of the Holy Father, as adapted by and
[7] George Augustin, History of Yellow Fever (New Orleans, 1909), as referenced by
[6,8] Death, Where Is Your Sting?, the quotes from this section come from a tender account of Seelos’ final weeks of life as told primarily by those who witnessed his death. Seldom revealed details of his encounter with yellow fever transport us to the bedside of a true martyr. Hardcover, 175 pp., photos. Available at the Seelos Shrine gift shop.

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