VATICAN CITY — The news that Redemptorist Father Francis Xavier Seelos would be beatified April 9 in St. Peter's Square came as a surprise last December.
That's when Pope John Paul II declared the heroic virtues of Father Seelos and approved a reported miracle attributed to his intercession.
Both steps are necessary for beatification, but it is highly unusual for both to be approved on the same day. The surprise means that the causes of two Americans will be advanced during the Great Jubilee — Father Seelos and Blessed Katharine Drexel, who will be canonized on Oct. 1.
Father Seelos was known as a kindly confessor, formation director and dynamic mission preacher who galvanized Catholics even beyond his death from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1867. Yet, outside of that city and perhaps the South, he is not well known to American Catholics.
Francis Xavier Seelos will be the second American male to be raised to the altars, joining his fellow Redemptorist priest and friend, St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Known as “the holy man of New Orleans,” Father Seelos'career can be read as a summary of the growth of the Church in the United States in the 19th century.
He was born in Füssen, Germany, about 60 miles south of Munich, on Jan. 11, 1819. Raised in a devout Bavarian Catholic family, he went on to study theology at the University at Munich and prepared to be ordained for the local clergy.
The Church in the United States was growing explosively at the time due to immigration from Europe, principally from Germany and Ireland. Francis Xavier Seelos — perhaps destined to be a missionary given his name — joined that wave of immigration.
“Today we will not study; last night the Blessed Mother told me that I'm to become a missionary in America,” the young Francis told his brother Adam. Convinced of his vocation in this unusual manner, Seelos decided to sail for America to join the Redemptorist novitiate in Baltimore. Taking leave of his parents and eight brothers and sisters by means of a farewell letter, he set sail for New York on St. Patrick's Day in 1843.
A Parish's Saintly Pair
Seelos arrived in the United States at age 24. He professed as a Redemptorist and was ordained a priest. The following year, his was possible because of the studies he had completed in Europe.
Father Seelos spent the first nine years of his priestly ministry at St. Philomena's in Pittsburgh, a German immigrant parish where the pastor was a young Father John Neumann. The bishop at the time used to call Fathers Neumann and Seelos the “two saints of St. Philomena's,” an intuition that has been confirmed by the Church.
“I was John Neumann's subject, but was more like a son who needed help,” said Father Seelos. “In every respect, he was a remarkable father to me.”
In addition to their shared work in the parish, the two preached missions together.
Father Seelos'kindly reputation as a confessor attracted many Catholics to him from surrounding towns. Because of the constant smile on his lips, he was known as “the Cheerful Ascetic.”
Long lines would form outside his confessional as many penitents said that he could read their souls, and that he made confessing one's sins easy, even a pleasant experience. Father Seelos allowed only that he encouraged his penitents to tell their own story.
From the beginning, Father Seelos was also sought out for physical healings. Especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin, he would often direct those who sought him out for healings to pray at her altar in the church. He often prayed together with these sick people, and many of whom reported cures after asking Father Seelos to pray for them.
Work and Piety
Father Seelos made an impression as a man of hard work and deep piety who did not hesitate to laugh. He told jokes, and was always ready with a smile and folksy comment. He also loved to sing, and was not shy about singing in full voice his favorite Marian hymns, often repeating the same ones over and over, saying to those who objected to the repetition, “Once beautiful, always beautiful.”
Father Seelos' subsequent assignments reflected the burgeoning pastoral needs of a vast continent that was becoming a single country. In 1854, he was transferred to Maryland, first at St. Alphonsus Parish in Baltimore, and then, in 1857, he moved to Annapolis to serve as the Redemptorists' novice master. That assignment lasted but a few months, and Father Seelos moved on to Cumberland, where he directed the order's seminary.
After five years preparing future priests for the local “missions” of the United States, Father Seelos returned to Annapolis in 1862. With the Civil War raging, the Redemptorist seminarians were in danger. Father Seelos moved them all to Annapolis where they would be less risk. But his problems remained.
Seminarians were liable to be drafted into the Army, and Father Seelos met with President Abraham Lincoln to request an exemption. He was denied, given that only ordained clergymen were excused from service. Ever a practical man, Father Seelos did not take long to solve the problem. He persuaded Baltimore's Archbishop Francis Kenrick to ordain all 20 men ahead of schedule.
In 1865, Father Seelos was assigned to Detroit, but was soon sent south to New Orleans. Arriving in September 1866, Father Seelos was appointed pastor of St. Mary's in the Irish quarter of town.
By the 1860s, a German priest handling an Irish parish in the former French colonies of the now United States was a sign of the ability of the Church to thrive under a whole new set of circumstances in North America.
At St. Mary's, he was known for his availability to all people and worked among the yellow fever victims. In September 1867, he contracted the fatal disease, and after several weeks of enduring his illness, he died on Oct. 4 at the age of 48. He lived 24 years each in Germany and the United States.
The miracle the Holy Father recognized for Father Seelos' beatification was the cure of Angela Boudreaux, a Gretna, La., woman who was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in 1966. She was told she had two weeks to live after her surgeon saw the size of the malignant tumor and decided he could not operate.
She said she prayed constantly for the intercession of Father Seelos and recovered completely, an event the doctors said could not be explained medically.
She has worked for the more than three decades since her cure at the Seelos Center in New Orleans, which gathers information in support of Feather Seelos'cause. Arecent CTscan, done in conjunction with the final details of moving toward beatification, showed Boudreaux's healthy liver. For Father Seelos to be declared a saint, a second miracle will be needed.
In his formal request for the beatification of Father Seelos, Archbishop José Saraiva Martin, prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, told the Pope that Father Seelos “died, surrounded by a great fame of holiness. Europe and America rejoice knowing that soon he will be counted among those beatified.”