America’s Forgotten Saint
By Rev. Carl Hoegerl, C.Ss.R.
“Today we will not study; last night the Blessed Mother told me that I’m to become a missionary in America.” This is how Francis Xavier Seelos told his younger brother Adam that he was going to give up his study of theology at the University of Munich. He was going to become a missionary priest in the United States. He was going to Baltimore to make his novitiate and join the Redemptorists. And so it happened.
Urged on by this Marian experience, Francis set sail for New York on Saint Patrick’s day, 1843. His departure cost him dearly. He loved his family very much and was close to his parents and all his eight brothers and sisters. Saying a last goodbye would be too painful for everyone. So he decided not to go home one last time but, like his namesake St. Francis Xavier, said farewell in a letter and departed for Le Harve and the sailing ship that would bring him to the New World. He had just turned twenty-four.
Francis, or Xavier as he was always called in the family, was bom January I 1, 1819, in Fiissen, a village in southwest Bavaria, on the edge of the Austrian Alps. He grew up in a thoroughly Catholic family and town. In later years he would write home to his mother: “I want to thank you for instilling into us children a great devotion to Mary.” And often in his letters he asked his two unmarried sisters to go to the Shrine of our Lady of the Mountain and pray for him and his missionary work.
During his vacations from school Francis went on long walking trips. Each year he made sure that he visited one of the shrines of Mary that were famous in the region, some close, some not so close. A school companion of his related that when he stood before Mary’s altar, he used to give full voice to his devotion and sing so loud that it filled the whole church. He could not be deterred and insisted on singing all the verses to his beloved Mother.
Once in the States, after thirty-five days on the high seas, matters went quickly for Francis. He made his religious profession as a Redemptorist in Baltimore on May 16, 1844, and was ordained that same year on December 22. The following year he began a nine-year ministry to the German immigrants at St. Philomena Church in smokey Pittsburgh. Here also he began a priestly career that was remarkable for a special gift in the confessional. Penitents flocked to go to Confession to him. They often waited for hours. His confessional, usually the last one at the back of the church, was besieged, even when the other priests had long departed. .
People were convinced that Father Seelos had the gift of reading hearts. Some said that he knew what they were going to say before they said it. Others remarked that he made Confession so very easy, even pleasant and enjoyable. He himself once admitted that he gave his penitents a chance to tell their story and found that this put them at their ease. Above all, he brought great peace to troubled hearts.
His kindness in hearing Confession brought its toll. One of his converts, an elderly lady, took up a lot of time with her Confession. Father Seelos, knowing that there were many others waiting, said to her one day: “There’s a poor gray-headed old woman outside waiting to come in.” “Yes Father,” she replied, “and there’s another gray-headed old woman inside and one gray head has as much right as another.”
As an inexperienced young priest in Pittsburgh, he once had a sick call to someone on the other side of the river. He had to take the ferry to get there. Because he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, he thought it only proper to kneel down on the deck in adoration of his Divine Lord. Some rough and tough characters gave him a hard time, even hinting at throwing the hated Catholic priest into the river. Luckily a sharp-tongue Irish serving girl came to his rescue and gave a sound verbal lashing to the ruffians. St. John Neumann, his superior, cautioned him about this for the future. Those were the days of much anti-Catholic sentiment.
It was in Pittsburgh, too, that Father Seelos became known as the priest who could heal the sick and the troubled. When the afflicted came to him, he sent them into the church, to the altar of our Blessed Lady. There he prayed with them and gave them a blessing. Many were the cures that were reported through his prayers.