A Hospitable High Point in The Big Easy

One year ago, the Gulf Coast was in a state of shock. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had come and gone, leaving in their wake a trail of devastation and displacement that, for many, continues to this day.

Having visited New Orleans’ Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Center several months before the heavy winds and high waters, I wondered how well the center — along with the church next door, St. Mary’s Assumption — had recovered. I put a call in to Redemptorist Father Byron Miller, director of the Seelos Center.

The news was good.

“Our church is built on a high elevation, similar to the French Quarter and Algiers location,” the priest told me. “We had a bit of acoustic tile damage from the water from above in the center. The only real damage to the church interior was when the wind blew out a plain glass window on the stairs to the choir loft.”

Ever optimistic, Father Miller added, with obvious delight in his voice: “Every cloud has a copper lining. We’re getting a new roof.”

The shrine is located adjacent to St. Mary’s Assumption Parish, which served thousands of 19th-century immigrant families. Originally Louisiana’s first German-speaking parish, it has an inspiring history. In 1843 the Redemptorist priests arrived in New Orleans; the next year they put up the first Catholic church outside of the French Quarter. The cornerstone for the present church was laid in 1848. Horse-drawn carts carried bricks, brought in by barge, to a muddy intersection. Parish women sloshed through the mud with bricks they had gathered in their aprons. A majestic Gothic structure arose. Today the neighborhood is considered “trendy” and is experiencing gradual gentrification.

For his part, Francis Seelos was born in 1819 in the German Alps, the sixth child of 12. He inherited his father’s joyful spirit and quiet dignity. His father was originally a weaver, but, as the Industrial Revolution weakened the weavers’ markets, he became parish sacristan. This frugal but happy household was committed to its Catholic faith. The family’s day ended with family prayer and a spiritual reading. Francis’ desire to be a missionary came as a result of one such reading. On hearing the life of one particular saint, Francis cried out: “I want to be a Francis Xavier.”

Little could he have known that the Church would one day beatify him and give him his own feast day — Oct. 5.

Missionary Man

In 1841, while studying theology, young Francis Seelos had a vision of the Virgin Mary. This would eventually lead to his becoming a Redemptorist priest in America. He departed France in 1843 and arrived in New York Harbor one year later. Within a month he was at the Redemptorist novitiate in Baltimore. After ordination, Father Seelos quickly came under the influence of Father John Neumann, who guided him as a spiritual leader and confessor while Father Seelos was posted in Pennsylvania. (His mentor would go on to become bishop of Philadelphia — and a canonized saint.)

As he moved from one parish to another, Father Seelos’ reputation for preaching and exceptional skill in the confessional spread. He was known to say: “If you are afraid of making your confession, come to me; I promise to be gentle with you.” Penitents waited hours for their turn in his confessional.

In the 1860s, Father Seelos was appointed superior and director of the Redemptorist Seminary in Maryland. However, because he didn’t adhere to strict European methods of training seminarians, he was removed by his superior general in Rome.

After being assigned to several parishes to give missions (for which the Redemptorists are noted) Father Seelos was sent to the New Orleans German-speaking parish of St. Mary’s Assumption in 1866. He predicted his own demise, stating to a friend: “Here I’ll rest my bones in the grave; for I think I have wandered enough.”

One year later, a virulent outbreak of yellow fever ravaged New Orleans. Father Seelos’ last pastoral act was visiting a man dying of the fever, even though he himself had the fever. The beloved priest died three weeks later, at the age of 48. His funeral was so crowded officials had to watch so the candles and everything else wouldn’t be knocked over.

Immediately after Blessed Seelos’ death, several miracles were reported. And, as the word of his sanctity has spread, requests for his canonization are being heard.

‘Make Me a Saint’

The tasteful Blessed Seelos Center, adjoining St. Mary’s Assumption Church is, according to Father Miller, designed to “avoid commercialization.” The first time I visited, I talked with volunteers Jack and Jackie Guidry and their two small grandchildren. At that time Jack told me: “As a retired insurance adjuster, I only met people who had bad things happen to them [due to the hurricanes]. Here I also meet people where good things happen.” The Guidrys knew it was time to evacuate to the Florida panhandle after a tree landed on their car.

Visitors to Blessed Seelos Shrine are in for a double treat. St. Mary’s Assumption Church, to which the shrine is attached, is a magnificent example of modified Gothic style. The high altar, built in Munich in the 1870s, along with all the statues, are hand-carved of wood. The lower section portrays the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, with 19 biblical figures and saints depicted. The upper section shows the Assumption and Crowning of Mary, with Sts. Peter and Paul and countless angel faces gazing with love on her.

The stained-glass windows — especially the Great Window, which shows angels being dispatched to purgatory to fetch souls for heaven — and ornate hand-carved pulpit are worth prayer and contemplation in their own right. 

Before I left, I asked Father Miller why he had such a devotion to Blessed Seelos. “I was familiar with Redemptorist Sts. John Neumann and Alphonsus de Ligouri, but found them somewhat remote,” he says. “But, as a 24-year-old priest, I read Father Michael Curley’s biography of Father Seelos, Cheerful Ascetic, and was so impressed by his cheerfulness and how childlike he was in his faith. I found him captivating and appealing, and I thought, ‘If Seelos can be a saint, maybe we can, too.’”

As I said my final prayer at the reliquary where his body lay, I whispered St. Alphonsus’ prayer: “O my God, make me a saint!”

Lorraine Williams writes from

Markham, Ontario.

Planning Your Visit

For more information on the Blessed Seelos Center and St. Mary’s Assumption Church, visit seelos.org on the Internet or call (504) 525-2495.

Getting There

St. Mary Assumption Church is at

2030 Constance St.
in New Orleans. For driving directions, visit seelos.org on the Internet or call (504) 525-2495.