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The Priest in Work Clothes

The Life of Blessed Francis Seelos 1819 - 1867

By: Ann Ball

The Priest in Work Clothes: The Life of Blessed Francis Seelos 1819 - 1867 by Ann Ball

“Father, please pray for my daughter to die,” the heartbroken woman begged her confessor. Shocked at the horrible request, the priest’s voice remained calm and soothing as he asked the woman why.

After the woman talked for a few minutes, the priest realized that the child was suffering from epilepsy. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. She replied that the doctors had told her to keep the malady a secret and not to send the child to school.

Gently, the priest told the woman to bring her daughter to him. He took them to the altar of the Blessed Virgin, put his hands on the child’s head, and blessed her. Then he told the mother that God had healed her daughter, but to keep silent about it and immediately enroll the child in school. From that point on, the seizures stopped. The girl was healed. This was but one of the many miraculous healings attributed to Blessed Francis Seelos, both during his lifetime and after his death.

“I Cannot Resist the Inner Call”

Francis Xavier Seelos was born on January 11, 1819, in Fussen, Germany. The son of a tailor, Francis was a happy, devout child who enjoyed playing pranks on friends and family alike. Three characteristics emerged during his youth—cheerfulness, gentleness, and charitableness—which remained with him throughout life, and his primary biographer styled him a “cheerful ascetic.”

Frau Seelos often read from the lives of the saints to her nine children, and upon learning about his famous namesake, young Francis Xavier told his mother that he too would be a missionary. Later he also told his brother Adam how sure he was that God wanted him to “go to the land which I have shown you many times . . . on the maps. . . . I cannot resist the inner call, and I will not oppose it but freely follow it.”

From his early teenage years, Francis felt called to the priesthood, and through the help of his pastor he managed to obtain a scholarship. In 1842, after reading a plea to help the German immigrants in the United States, he applied for admission to the American Redemptorists. He was accepted and was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to make his novitiate.

Being a loving person, Francis was well-loved in return—by family, friends, and virtually everyone who came under his influence. He realized how difficult it would be to say good-bye, and so while waiting for word of his acceptance by the Redemptorists, he enrolled in a seminary some distance from his home. On receiving his acceptance, instead of going home to bid his family farewell, he wrote them a tender and touching letter that didn’t reach them until after his departure. In May of 1844, Seelos was professed as a member of the Redemptorists, and ordained in December of the same year. In 1845 he was assigned to St. Philomena’s parish in Pittsburgh.

Two Saints in One Rectory?

The pastor of St. Philomena’s, John Neumann—who would someday become bishop of Philadelphia and a canonized saint—provided Seelos with an example of everything a good priest should be and do, and his witness was not lost on the young assistant. Seelos once said of him: “I was his subject, but more like a son who needed help. . . . In every respect he was a remarkable father to me.”

At first Seelos had a good bit of difficulty preaching in English. After one of his first sermons, a woman remarked that she had understood very little of what he said, but added that it did her good to see him struggle so hard! In later years, however, his preaching was so outstanding that people would walk miles just to hear him.

In Pittsburgh, as in most of the young United States at this time, there was much anti-Catholic feeling, fired by radical groups such as the Know-Nothing party. On one occasion, Seelos was lured to a house by a non-Catholic who told him that his Catholic wife was very ill. Once there, the man beat the unsuspecting priest severely. Seelos never mentioned this incident, but word of the attack did make its way to some staunch Catholics in the area. They went to Seelos to convince him to have the man arrested, but Seelos would not allow it.

In 1851, Seelos was named pastor of St. Philomena’s. His loving nature and faithfulness to his calling endeared him to all who knew him. His reputation for holiness began to spread, along with his wise counsel. And the healings continued. A man who could not walk once came to the rectory and asked Seelos to heal him. “My good man, I am not a doctor. I cannot cure you,” the priest replied. “I am not leaving until you heal me,” the man responded as he threw his crutches out the window. Impressed by the man’s faith, Seelos read to him from the Bible and then blessed him. When the man was able to stand on his own, Seelos reminded him that it was God who had healed him.

A Cheerful, Zealous Heart

After nine years in Pittsburgh, Seelos was transferred to Baltimore and later to rural Cumberland, Maryland. He next spent time as a director of the Redemptorist seminary, and finally as a pastor in Annapolis. In every place he ministered, Francis Seelos was remembered for his brilliant sermons, his desire to bring people to Christ, and his kindness and consolation in the confessional. Nothing seemed to bother him. In Baltimore he was called one night to the deathbed of a young woman. Only on arrival did he realize he was in a house of prostitution. When a local newspaper found out about it, they printed an insinuating report. When Seelos’ coworkers showed him the report he simply said, “Well, I saved a soul.”

At the seminary, some of the seminarians had invented a “Laughing Society.” At any time, a member could be called upon to crack a joke; no one was permitted to laugh until a consultation was held by the members to judge whether the joke deserved a laugh or a grunt. If it was a laugh, everyone had to laugh and then stop laughing at a given signal. Seelos joined the society to find out what it was all about. He could easily laugh at a joke, but unfortunately he couldn’t stop laughing at the signaled moment. As a result, he was sentenced to say several prayers. Within ten minutes, after having been assigned two or three rosaries, he fled the group to avoid further penalties.

In 1863, Seelos began working in the most characteristic apostolate of the Redemptorists: For three years, he conducted missions in more than a dozen states, bringing countless people to conversion. His final assignment, in 1866, was to New Orleans. Around this time, there was serious talk about making Seelos a bishop, but when he got wind of the idea, he firmly resisted it. Writing a letter to the pope, he asked to be allowed to remain a simple priest. The request was granted, and Seelos was passed over.

New Orleans and Yellow Fever

When he arrived in New Orleans, Seelos discovered that his superior was Father John Duffy, a man who had been a novice under Seelos at the seminary. Seelos jokingly told his new rector, “Now you can have your revenge on me for all the evil I did to you many years ago.” Duffy merely smiled.

Seelos threw himself into his work in New Orleans, keeping long hours in his never-ending desire to bring people to Christ. When yellow fever broke out in September of 1867, he worked tirelessly among the sick and dying until he himself was stricken with the disease. During the last month of his life, Seelos remained prayerful, uncomplaining, and completely at peace.

As Seelos was dying, the doctor tried to explain his condition to him. Finally, Father Duffy told him, “The doctor says you are going to heaven.” The answer was typical: “Oh, what pleasant news! How thankful I am. And to you, doctor, how much have I not to return thanks for your kindness and attention.”

“Extraordinary Deeds” Not Required

Brother Louis, who had recognized the holiness of Seelos as a novice, was there at his deathbed. He asked the dying priest to tell him how to please God. Seelos responded, “I think the best way is to accept the will of God, to obey faithfully and quietly the orders of one’s superior, and to do the work assigned. . . . It is not necessary to accomplish extraordinary deeds.”

Through the years his reputation for healing had spread. Shortly before Seelos died on October 4, 1867, Father Duffy suffered the recurrence of a crippling pain in his knee which left him unable to walk. The pain was from a childhood injury, which had been healed through the intercession of his patron saint. Duffy knew that if he had to quit his work with the sick of the city (since Seelos was already out of commission), the other priests wouldn’t be able to handle the workload. With stubborn Irish defiance, he determined, “Through the merits of a saint I was cured the first time, and through the merits of another saint I will be cured a second time!”

Painfully making his way to the bedside of his dying subordinate, Duffy knelt on his good leg and prayed to God that through the merits of Father Seelos he would be able to continue his work with the sick and dying. The pain stopped immediately, and Duffy rose. But the priest by whose virtues the miracle was granted would not learn—on this side of eternity—of the miracle.

Francis Seelos’ mission of healing did not end with his death. Many people, convinced of his sanctity, asked his intercession in prayer, and reports of healings began to spread. Two of the Redemptorists who had known him began to collect the reports and asked for an investigation to be opened. The ordinary process was begun in 1900, and Francis Seelos was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 9, 2000.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos’ feast day is celebrated on October 5.

Ann Ball, a well-known writer on the saints and frequent contributor to The Word Among Us, passed away in Houston, Texas, in 2008. Her story of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos appeared in In the Land I Have Shown You: The Stories of 16 Saints and Christian Heroes of North America (The Word Among Us, 2002).

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