Soul-Reader in the Big Easy

When Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi, Miss., visited Jessie Arbogast in the hospital July 14, he blessed the 8-year-old with a relic of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.

The nation knows Jessie as the victim of a terrible shark attack earlier this summer in Pensacola, Fla. — one in which his arm was bitten off, then recovered from the fish's mouth and reattached.

As the boy continues to recover at a Catholic hospital in Pensacola, attention is due the little-known blessed whose intercession may have been instrumental in the boy's recuperation.

You don't have to travel far from Pensacola to find Blessed Seelos, a Redemptorist priest and the first North American to be beatified in the Jubilee year (on April 9, 2000): His shrine is just across the Mississippi Sound in New Orleans.

St. Mary's Assumption Church houses the shrine. Once a Civil War parish church, St. Mary's, completed in 1860, attracts visitors with its beauty, history and artifacts that belonged to Blessed Seelos. Generations of Catholics have worshipped in this magnificent building, New Orleans' most sumptuous church.

Father Seelos served as a missionary in the mid-Atlantic states, as well as Michigan. Far from his homeland in Fussen, Germany, he adapted to American life with his multi-lingual gifts, which allowed him to converse with Dutch and German immigrants. He also lived and worked for nine years at St. Philomena's Parish in Pittsburgh. There, in a rectory that had been converted from a leaky old factory, he was mentored by another great Redemptorist, St. John Neumann (who later went on to serve as bishop of Philadelphia).

Later, at subsequent assignments, people recognized Blessed Seelos' obvious holiness. Some claimed a brilliant light emanated from his presence; others simply described him as “angelic.” After his death, a New Orleans newspaper wrote: “No one could look upon him, especially when at the altar, or in the pulpit, without feeling that there was immeasurably more of heaven than of earth about this devoted servant of Christ. … The many who sought his spiritual guidance knew his only human weakness was his overflowing sympathy and charity for poor, erring humanity.”

In 1866, traveling by train to New Orleans, Father Seelos prophetically announced to a nun that he was going for a one-year stay, “and then I'll die of yellow fever.”

With an epidemic of that disease ravaging New Orleans in the summer and fall of 1867, Father Seelos nursed the sick, perpetually putting himself at risk, and succumbed on Oct. 4, 1867.

Confessional Constancy

With seating for 1,100, the Seelos shrine retains its Civil Warera ambience. Four gracefully carved mahogany confessionals sit in the rear church, where Blessed Seelos gave absolution. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, here and throughout his priesthood, his confessional “was constantly besieged by crowds of people of every description and class. It was said by many that he could read their very souls.”

One of his New Orleans confessionals is still in use today; Father Miller told me how privileged he considers himself to hear confessions where Father Seelos so compassionately drew souls into the mercy of God.

Mahogany pews are carved at the ends in scroll design. Spanning the length of the church are 16 German-Baroque columns. Chandeliers, once gas-lit, hang above the outer aisles.

The glory of St. Mary's architecture is its high-altar sculpture of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, complemented by statues of the four evangelists standing on surrounding columns. All statues are wood-carved, painted in vibrant colors and imported from Germany. The Coronation altar was under construction during 1866-67 and, although Father Seelos did not live to see its completion, he celebrated Mass while waiting for its finish. Neither did he see the stained-glass window of the Assumption, imported from Munich and added after his death. The church is now graced by this premier window, as well as four others designed in quarter sections. Ten Redemptorist priests are interred behind the original altar railing, among them Father Wencelaus Neumann, brother of St. John Neumann.

The remains of Blessed Seelos were interred at a side altar until his beatification proceedings began.

The initial slab remains, although one can now see the splendid reliquary in the Seelos Shrine that extends off the main church. A rare design by Italian artists Giovanni Ascione and Sons, the reliquary looks like a miniature house. It's decorated with amethyst stones in every “shingle,” an amethyst ball at the top adorned with a gold cross, and a figure in the main niche of Blessed Seelos; he is flanked on either side by an angel holding a sign of his priestly office — a chalice to his right, a stole to his left.

Opposite this display, the founder of the Redemptorist order, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, appears with Sts. John Neumann and Clement Hofbauer at his sides in a breathtaking reliquary. Its ornamentation also contains intricate mosaics, amber stones, cultured pearls and four panels depicting Blessed Seelos' life.

Cast in silver, and counting the casket inside, it weighs 500 pounds. A plush, gold-tone kneeler invites petitioners and visitors to pray close to the remains of this saintly priest.

Evidence of Holiness Strived For

The Shrine Room contains a beatification portrait and a reliquary containing a sizeable bone chip of Father Seelos. In October, this relic will be replaced with his sternum; a newly designed, jeweled reliquary will house it.

The Museum Room displays some of Blesses Seelos' personal objects, including his 15-decade wood rosary with a divider medal of Our Lady of Sorrows. The origin of his love for Our Lady under this particular title is unclear, but he prophesied that he would die under her protection — and literally did, with his casket resting in state near her statue, which he had blessed. This now resides in the courtyard under a canopy.

The museum cases also exhibit Blessed Seelos' profession cross and a simple, carved-wood box for his letters and homilies (which are preserved in the Redemptorist Archives in Brooklyn, N.Y.). His original, cast-iron casket with supporting wood pieces can be seen, as well as Seelos' chalice, paten, handkerchief and two penitential objects — a small whip of coarse cord and a cilicium, an iron cuff with small, sharp points worn around the arm or leg three times weekly.

Other artifacts include relics of Sts. Paul, Alphonsus Ligouri, Gerard Majella and Pope Pius X, along with pieces of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulcher. A case labeled “Beatification” holds documents, photos, invitations to Rome and Italian newspaper clippings. Stunning artistic renderings of the Stations of the Cross, painted by Neopolitan Antonio Lomuscio, were added last year.

In the shrine's courtyard, a cross marks the spot where Father Seelos gave his soul to God after a three-week bout with “the fever.” Formerly, the museum area was a residence for priests and extended into the present courtyard. Now it brims with palm trees and other indigenous foliage.

There are tables for picnicking. A gift shop offers literature, devotional objects and relics of Blessed Seelos.

Twice yearly, at Seelos Masses in the spring and fall, the Beatification Tapestry from St. Peter's Square is hung from the choir loft, while Blessed Seelos' mission cross is used to bless the faithful.

I was impressed by the beauty of the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, and deeply moved by the abundant evidence of his intense love of God.

I felt like the 19th-century French townsman who, upon laying eyes on another holy priest, St. John Vianney, said: “I have just seen God in a man.” Now, with my visit to the shrine a wonderful memory, something tells me Jessie Arbogast is in very good hands.

Regina Marshall writes from Hamden, Connecticut.