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The Life of a Roving Redemptorist

by Fr. John Murray, C.Ss.R.

Francis Xavier Seelos was born on Jan. 11, 1819 in Fuessen, Swabia, in a mountainous region some 60 miles south of Munich in present-day Germany. After studying at the University of Munich, he asked to become a Redemptorist missionary, not surprising for someone named “Francis Xavier.” At the age of 23, he left his home, never to return.

He was ordained in 1844 and first served as a priest at St. James parish in Baltimore, now closed. Within a year, he was transferred to St. Philomena’s parish in Pittsburgh, now also closed, where his pastor was a young Father John Neumann.

The bishop of Pittsburgh called Fathers Seelos and Neumann the “two saints of St. Philomena’s” and in 1860 nominated Father Seelos to succeed him as pastor. Father Seelos spent a total of nine years in Pittsburgh, and was pastor for three years, from 1851-1854.

Some call Father Seelos the Holy Man of New Orleans, but he spent only 13 months in the Crescent City. He is really the Holy Man of Maryland. In 1854 he became pastor of St. Alphonsus in Baltimore, probably the only church in America that has had both a saint and a servant of God as pastors. While pastor on Saratoga Street, he laid the cornerstone for St. Joseph’s, Fullerton, which was cared for by the Redemptorists at the time.

In 1857, because of minor health problems, he came to Annapolis as pastor of tiny St. Mary’s parish and novice master for the Redemptorists. After only two months in Annapolis, he was moved to Cumberland where he became pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul, and director of the Redemptorist seminary there. His nemesis, Father Michael Mueller, became pastor and novice master in Annapolis.

In 1862 the switch was made again. In the midst of the Civil War, after Redemptorist seminarians had been caught in a crossfire, Father Seelos relocated the whole student body from Cumberland to the safety of Annapolis, becoming pastor at St. Mary’s a second time. He did pastoral work for Southern prisoners in Parole and for wounded Union troops at St. John’s College and the Naval Academy. (The midshipmen had been transferred to Rhode Island, and the Naval Academy became a military hospital.)

One of the problems confronting Father Seelos was the possibility of his seminarians being drafted into the army. He visited President Lincoln and asked to have the seminarians exempted from the draft. His request was denied because only priests could be exempted. Father Seelos had an easy solution. He had Archbishop Kenrick ordain all 20 seminarians and his problem was over.

Father Seelos lived only two years after leaving Maryland. He was sent to Detroit in 1865. He then was transferred to New Orleans in September 1866, and he became pastor of St. Mary’s Church in the Irish quarter there. Thirteen months later, on Oct. 4, 1867, he died during a yellow fever epidemic, a martyr to charity caring for the sick. He was only 48 years old. He is buried in the sanctuary at St. Mary’s, New Orleans, next to Brother Wenceslaus Neumann, St. John Neumann’s brother.

Father Seelos had a reputation for holiness and was renowned for his good cheer and delightful disposition. The cause for his canonization was introduced in 1900. The Father Seelos Center at 2030 Constance St. in New Orleans, LA, 70130, mails a monthly bulletin.

His biography is entitled The Cheerful Ascetic, but the title is not really that contradictory or paradoxical. Father Seelos was a man of deep prayer, but he was also a happy and cheerful fellow. He loved to tell jokes. He was a folksy preacher who used to write short poems to recite during his sermons.

Sometimes we think that we have to be sour to be spiritual, that to be ascetical we must be severe. Father Seelos was cheerful and gentle always, yet still the ascetic. It is not a sin to have a good laugh at times. Francis Seelos, the holy man of Maryland, can teach us that.