“Our Most Amazing Case”
by Patricia Treece
In life Father Francis Xavier Seelos smiled engagingly for his official priestly photograph while his fellow Redemptorists, in nineteenth-century style, assumed expressions ranging from sober to downright grim. In death, too, Seelos’ expression people found benign and inviting (an undertaker has assured me that corpses have no expression except as set by an undertaker, but testimonies in dozens of cases convince me that the death of saints habitually breaks this rule).
In spite of the ongoing yellow-fever epidemic and a hurricane that blew through New Orleans that day, immediately following his death on the afternoon of October 4, 1867, hundreds rushed to St. Mary’s Assumption Church where his body lay on view.
Redemptorist Brother Louis feared the coffin would be overturned by the eagerness of the crowd pressing to reach the body. He noted that people, including the Redemptorists, were drawn to touch Xavier Seelos’ corpse, for there was a general conviction that this was no ordinary body, but the physical portion of a saint whose extraordinary relationship to God and the human family channeled healing.
Among those saying openly that a saint had just graced New Orleans with his death was Christine Holle. Christine had been in bed for a month when she heard the bells tolling Father Seelos’s death. As she listened something welled up in her and she felt a great desire to get to St. Mary’s. Ignoring the excruciating pain racking her abdomen and hip, she dragged herself out of bed and into some clothes. What disease she had is unknown to us today, but we have her testimony that it caused ongoing agonizing pain. Somehow she made it to church and through the pressing crowd to fall on her knees by the coffin. Reaching up, she touched the dead priest’s hand. At that moment the terrible pain in her abdomen and hip left, never to return.
The next morning, as the body was being moved for burial in front of the altar area, a grandmother with a baby in her arms called out to Father Seelos in prayer. Would he intercede for this child already marked by impending death? From that moment occurred what one who saw it called “a great cure.”
While individual Redemptorists like Father Duffy and Brother Louis were certain Father Seelos was a saint, they knew that only after both a stringent examination of a person’s life and verified miracles as signs by God will the Church male such a pronouncement. Hoping an official scrutiny would be initiated by the Church, they dared do little to promote it. Any suspicion on Rome’s part that a religious order is drumming up the looked-for popular enthusiasm on behalf of a dead member stops a Cause cold.
So while Brother Louis, in New Orleans, and other individual Redemptorists such as Seelos’ former seminarian Father Bernard Beck, in Detroit, made careful notes on what people said to them of Father Seelos and the hearings recipients attributed to him, publicly the Order remained quiet on the dead priest.
It was ordinary people who had known Father Seelos who spontaneously turned to the dead priest as a powerful prayer partner in Heaven. They shared the view of the writer for New Orleans’ secular newspaper the Daily Picayune that Father Seelos’ “only human weakness was his overflowing sympathy and charity for poor, erring humanity.” In prayer, they put Father Seelos’s sympathy and charity to the test and were not disappointed.