Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos succumbs to yellow fever. Fr. Neithart writes of his passing moments, “Our dear dying Father remained conscious to his last breath. His lips continually moved in prayer. His eyes were fixed on the crucifix until they could see no more. A supernatural brightness appeared to illuminate his dying countenance. His joy, as the moment of dissolution approached, communicated itself to all present.” On the day after his passing, a house chronicle of St. Alphonsus church, New Orleans, describes Seelos thusly, “He was beautiful in death, wearing the same smile of sanctity as when alive.” | Shown above: At the Shrine in New Orleans, relics of Bl. Seelos are on display, such as his reliquary, coffin, a lock of hair and a piece of backbone.
Fr. Neithart recounts, “On the 17th of September, while the community was at table, it was noticed that Fr. Seelos looked unusually depressed, jaded, and pale. All perceived the clearest marks of the yellow fever about his eyes.” Innumerable prayers and Private Masses are said by thousands. After a few days, the fever breaks and no one doubts that he would be up again soon. However, nine days later Seelos is still severely weak, exhausted and listless. Toward the third week, his mind begins to wander and deliriousness sets in, though he doesn’t suffer from fever. Through it all and in true Seelos fashion, he retains “a kind tone and a smiling face,” states Fr. Neithart. He continues, “Many a time did his heroic cheerfulness draw tears from our eyes.”
“That fatal monster” yellow fever arrives. 11 priests and brothers in the area are taken ill. Four will perish. Fr. Benedict Neithart is an eyewitness to the events in New Orleans. | Shown above, “En Route for Kansas – Fleeing from the Yellow Fever” sketch by H. J. Lewis.
After serving less than a year in Detroit, Seelos is transferred to St. Mary of the Assumption parish in New Orleans, Louisiana. A prophetic moment happens on the way to New Orleans. A Sister of Notre Dame who is on the same train asks him if he is going to stay long in the city. He replies, “For a year and then I will die of yellow fever,” which is exactly what will happen. Though this assignment is known to fellow Redemptorists as the most difficult and dangerous post in America, all the fathers and brothers who had known Seelos in the North often remark that he seems much happier than ever before. He declares, “Here I’ll rest my bones in the grave; for I think I have wandered enough.” | Shown above, St. Mary’s Assumption Church.
Seelos is stationed, in his words, “only as a simple father” at St. Mary’s parish in Detroit, Michigan. His new superior, Fr. Francis van Emstede, says, “Fr. Seelos did everything willingly and cheerfully; that at all times he showed such a childlike and pious joyfulness and knew how to entertain everyone in his presence in a kindly way. His look was piety, his glance was comfort, his expression love; charity glistened in his eyes, and benevolence played around his venerable aspect.” He continued to make lasting impressions on everyone he met. Even those he encountered only briefly were destined to remember him. Franciscan Fr. Innocentius Wapelhorst recounts his experience with Seelos during a retreat for priests: “Unforgettable to me is good and holy Fr. Seelos. Although now seventeen years have already gone by since I saw him… still his amiable image, his noble and kindly personality, remain still fresh and vivid in my mind. The remembrance of him is and was always a source of encouragement to me.” | Shown above, photos of St. Mary’s in Detroit, Michigan.
Seelos is appointed as superior of the parish mission band and departs from his beloved Annapolis, bound for missions across 10 states in 2 years. No matter where he goes, he is always sought out by clergy and the people alike. It is said that people seemed to think that they had not made a “good confession” if they did not confess to him. Fr. Benedict Neithart, who attended many missions with Seelos, said, “Everybody flocked to him for confession, instruction, and consolation. Indeed, he became all unto all.” Fr. Thaddeus Anwander, another fellow missionary, relays this humorous anecdote: “He could not very plainly preach in English and one day trying his very best, an Irish lady remarked, though she understood very little what he said, ‘It does me good to see that holy priest struggle so hard.’” It seems everyone could relate to Blessed Seelos!
As the Civil War rages on, it becomes Seelos’ duty as Redemptorist rector to keep the students (and himself) out of military service, which is against Redemptorist rules. In an effort to avoid the draft, Seelos consults with the provincial and the community, who decide to quickly ordain twenty of the twenty-three students. However, Seelos is not entirely assured of his and the newly-ordained priests’ exemption from the draft, so he travels to Washington where he meets with President Lincoln and other officials. They received their order for exemption, “and the storm passed over thanks to God and the intercession of Mary,” Seelos writes in a letter to his sister.
Seelos is removed as prefect of students due to a series of negative and grossly inaccurate letters written to the Redemptorist superior general in Rome, chiefly by Fr. Mueller, who Seelos replaced as prefect in 1857. Seelos’ appointment apparently did not sit well with Mueller, who’s letters betrayed a smoldering vindictiveness toward his replacement. He states, “The only thing I have against Fr. Seelos is that he has not the judgement, wisdom, and reflection, the manner and method to direct the students in the spirit of the Congregation.” Seelos is devastated by his removal from office, but continues as rector and pastor of St. Mary’s parish. | Shown above, a photo of Fr. Michael Mueller.
Because of the harsh weather in Cumberland, the Redemptorists decide to move the students to the milder climate of Annapolis, and their beloved prefect Seelos with them. He was delighted at this move, stating in a letter to his sister Antonia, “Annapolis is now so wonderful that it really is too beautiful for me.” He again takes on the role of rector and pastor of St. Mary’s, as he did five years earlier.
Seelos’ joy of being appointed to St. Mary’s is short-lived. Only a month after arriving he is transferred to Cumberland, Maryland to become the superior and prefect of students at the Redemptorist seminary. This sudden change is due to multiple student criticisms about the current prefect, Fr. Michael Mueller, and his rigid, melancholy personality which has created an “unhealthy situation” at the seminary. The man responsible for Seelos’ reassignment, Fr. Augustine Hewit, says, “The one whom I think best fitted for it is Fr. Seelos. He is a saint in spirituality, and an angel in sweetness.” Naturally, Seelos wins the hearts of everyone there almost immediately. Within a few months, the number of seminary students doubles. Fr. Mueller does not take this news very well. | Shown above, a sketch of the monastery and church at Cumberland by Fr. Louis Dold, the church’s second pastor (1851-1853).