Particularly in the 19th Century there was a great need of missionary priests in America to minister to the vast crowds of Catholics who had sought better lives in the “land of the free.” Among these Catholics were millions of German-speaking Europeans. Their economic reasons for emigrating were understandable, but they did not fully recognize the dangers involved to their faith and culture on this side of the Atlantic.
Several orders of missionary priests did understand these perils. The German Redemptorist Fathers in particular saw the urgent need of sending missionary priests to German-speaking Catholics who had resettled throughout the United States. Their story is one of epic importance in missionary annals. We of the Rochester Diocese can bear witness, for example, to Redemptorist efforts to preserve Catholicism in western New York State. We are especially proud that in 1836 Father John Nepomucene Neumann, a priest from Austria-Hungary, assisted German-speaking immigrants in Rochester and then went on to become a Redemptorist, the bishop of Philadelphia, and a canonized saint.
On April 8, 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified yet another member of the American Redemptorist pioneers, Father Francis Xavier Seelos.
Here is the story of Blessed Francis Xavier.
Cloth merchant Mang Seelos and his wife, Frances Schwartzenbach, were citizens of Fuessen, Bavaria. They had 12 children in all. Francis Xavier was born on January 11, 1819. Mang and Frances were a devout couple, and three of their children had religious vocations. Mang himself, on retiring, became the sacristan of his parish church in Fuessen, St. Mary’s.
Francis Xavier was already convinced of his own call to the priesthood by the end of his primary education. He was therefore enrolled in 1834 at the Gymnasium (prep school) of St. Stephen’s Institute in Augsburg. Completing the course with honors in 1839, he moved on to the University of Munich, where he took two years of philosophy and began his course of theology.
By then he had brought his career into better focus. Impressed by his patron saint’s apostolic career, he aspired to become a missionary. Personal contact with the German Redemptorists and acquaintance with reports of their labors among German immigrants to the United States in the German Catholic Press, now prompted him to seek admission into the ranks of the “Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer”.
The Redemptorists welcomed this zealous young candidate in 1842, and in 1843 sent him to the U.S.A. to join the American Province. His Atlantic crossing took over a month, but he finally arrived at New York on April 20, 1843. At Baltimore he entered the Redemptorists, made his novitiate of one year, took his religious vows, finished his theological studies, and on December 22, 1844, was ordained a priest in the Redemptorist Church of St. James by Samuel Eccleston, the archbishop of Baltimore.
In addition to conducting a novitiate and a seminary, these pioneer Redemptorist missionaries made a practice of establishing parishes in cities. Several of their priests were assigned to reside there in community; some were to serve as parish priests; others were to seek out and organize immigrants scattered across rural areas; still others to give parish missions throughout the country. Father Francis’s assignments were typically varied.
His second appointment (also the longest) was to St. Philomena Church in Pittsburgh. Fortunately for him, the rector there was the future St. John Neumann, who became his spiritual director. All Pittsburgh found the young priest an outstanding man. The laity were ready to canonize him. His superiors named him master of novices, and then rector. Even the bishop, Michael J. O’Connor, given permission to resign and enter the Jesuits, recommended him to Rome as his successor. When he heard of Bishop O’Connor’s choice, Seelos wrote at once to Pope Pius IX protesting his own inadequacy and assuring Pius that his appointment to the See of Pittsburgh would be a “calamity”. Another man was appointed to Pittsburgh, to the great relief of the 40-year-old Redemptorist.
From 1854 to 1857 Father Francis was back in Baltimore as rector of St. Alphonsus Church. After that he was named to the important office of rector and prefect of studies at the Redemptorist seminary in Cumberland, Maryland. During his stay in Maryland, the American Civil War broke out. The Redemptorists had no doubt chosen Cumberland as the site of their seminary because it was located in the quiet countryside. During the Civil War, however, it was close to the epicenter of the Maryland-Pennsylvania military campaign.
In 1863 the seminarians at Cumberland themselves became subject to military draft by virtue of federal laws conscripting all able-bodied males. Father Seelos went to Washington to seek exemption of these students, as men called to a higher duty. He argued the case with President Abraham Lincoln himself. The President proved most receptive to his reasoning, and promised that he would do all he could to obtain a dispensation. Washington did allow the Redemptorist students to remain men of peace.
Francis Xavier Seelos apparently agreed with St. Francis de Sales that honey will attract more flies than vinegar. Ever smiling, he was the gentlest of confessors and spiritual guides. However, one of his Redemptorist brethren thought that he was too gentle with the seminarians and should be more severe. In 1863, therefore, his superiors gave Fr. Seelos a new assignment: head of the Redemptorist band of missionaries.
Seelos the missionary must have rejoiced in that change of task. For the next three years he was another St. Paul, giving retreats and preaching parish missions across the United States from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and even into Missouri.
In 1866 he was posted, by contrast, to the deep south, to New Orleans. There the Redemptorist Fathers had three parishes, one for the English-speaking, one for the German-speaking, and one for the French-speaking. Seelos’s ability to speak all three languages fitted him particularly well for his missionary tasks.
The priest from Bavaria brought to Louisiana all his ripened spiritual gifts. There, as elsewhere, he was at once recognized as a holy man. It was in New Orleans not long after that his characteristic compassion for the needy was given the acid test.
He had been in Louisiana only a short time when a severe epidemic of yellow fever broke out. Exhausted by their care for the sick and dying, several of the Redemptorists, including Fr. Francis, were themselves stricken by the ruthless “yellow jack”. After three weeks of intense suffering, Seelos died on Friday, October 4, 1867, aged 48.
The day of his death was significant. He had always prayed to die as Christ died, on a Friday. Those who attended his wake also noted something else of significance: even in the coffin the characteristic smile still played upon his lips.
In the printed announcement of Fr. Seelos’s death to his fellow Redemptorists, Father Helmpraecht, the Order’s provincial superior, had this to say of their Bavarian colleague: “He was considered a saint during his life and is even more so now than before his death. … He did wonderful work during life, and during his last illness, bore the sharpest pains with all patience. He was conspicuous for his love of poverty and mortification, for his love of his neighbor and his zeal for souls.”
Devotion to Fr. Francis Xavier mounted after his decease, and many favors were attributed to his intercession. The American Redemptorists took the first steps toward his beatification in 1903. The end of the beatification process came almost a century later, when Pope John Paul II announced that the Venerable Francis Xavier Seelos would be declared “blessed” during the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.
Pope Paul VI, in canonizing St. John N. Neumann in 1977, and Pope John Paul II, in beatifying Fr. Seelos in 2000, paid a deserved tribute to the heroic efforts of the German Redemptorist Fathers to preserve the faith of German-speaking Catholic immigrants in the U.S.A.
–Father Robert F. McNamara