Story and Photo By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
While he was only in New Orleans a little more than a year, Redemptorist Father Francis Xavier Seelos made a lasting impression.
“He was beloved by the people,” said Redemptorist Father Richard Boever, new director of the Blessed Seelos Center and Shrine. “He didn’t build churches or teach doctors like Thomas Aquinas; he was a pastoral person” who ministered to the poor, sick and youth. “He was a priest of the people.”
The “cheerful ascetic,” as he was known, left his homeland in Germany in 1843 to become a Redemptorist missionary priest in the United States. His ministry took him to Baltimore, Cumberland and Annapolis, Maryland; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; and he was a missionary preacher in Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
In 1866, Father Seelos was transferred to New Orleans as a prefect at St. Mary’s Assumption Church to serve German immigrants in their native language. He caught yellow fever and died here a year later at age 48.
Buried four times
Father Seelos was originally buried in a metal coffin at St. Mary’s Assumption under a Mater Dolorosa altar, said shrine volunteer, “blesser” and tour guide Bill Zimmermann, whose family had Father Seelos’ original mission cross – given by Father Seelos upon his death bed to his great grandfather Philip Antoni – until 1958.
“He did not want to be buried under the (church) altar,” Zimmermann said, he was too humble for that. Father Seelos had blessed a life-size Mater Dolorosa statue when it arrived at St. Mary’s Assumption from Germany.
His cause for beatification began in the early 1900s, Zimmermann said, with a representative from Rome exhuming his body the first time. It was reburied under the altar. Two marble stones mark his church burials. When Hurricane Betsy damaged St. Mary’s Assumption in 1965, his coffin was temporarily moved to St. Alphonsus but returned once St. Mary’s Assumption was restored, said shrine volunteer Mike Boudreaux, former archdiocesan cemeteries office director.
In 1999, while proving his heroic virtue for beatification, Father Seelos’ body was exhumed a second time, Boudreaux said. Vatican representatives studied his remains and returned to Rome “with a few bones to study” and for relics.
Forensic experts laid out his bones and “explained what they actually saw,” noticing small nose indentations where his thick glasses had rested. His ankles “showed he was either a jogger or heavy walker because his Achilles tendon was thin, something that only happens to athletes,” Boudreaux said. “He obviously did a lot of walking.”
A Mass was celebrated in St. Louis Cathedral Oct. 7, 2000, followed by a transfer of his bodily remains in a jazz funeral procession to the shrine.
Shrine is place of solace
From the time e died, Father Boever said people began visiting his grave. A museum was built in 1986, and after his April 9, 2000, beatification in Rome, the Redemptorists began working on a shrine in St. Mary’s former sacristy. When it was completed, his remains were placed in a child-size coffin in a reliquary. The shrine also includes a former open portico that was enclosed to house relics from other saints, a portrait, rosary and original metal coffin of Blessed Seelos and a bronze statue of him seated on a bench.
Thousands of people visit the center and shrine annually. The shrine’s newsletter reaches more than 17,000 worldwide.
“People come every day,” Father Boever said. Replicas of the original mission cross also are taken for prayer with those in hospitals and used during healing Masses held locally three times a year.
The Redemptorists and those devoted to Blessed Seelos’ cause are awaiting approval of another miracle for Blessed Seelos to be canonized as a saint.
Now that Redemptorist Father Gil Enderle, vice postulator for Blessed Seelos’ cause for canonization, is permanently assigned to the cause in New Orleans, Father Boever hopes the canonization will happen soon.
“I hope to (pursue) the strong-looking cases that have come in and not been attended to properly,” Father Enderle said.
Benefit concert Nov. 3
To keep the shrine and its welcome center going, a benefit concert has been organized Nov. 3. It features “America’s Got Talent” finalist, teen soprano Laura Bretan, who won the “Junior Romania Got Talent” contest, has sung with opera houses in Romania, appeared on Eurovision and performed the national anthem at professional sporting events in the U.S. with musician David Foster.
“The idea behind the concert is that lots of people in New Orleans don’t know about Blessed Seelos,” Zimmermann said. “We want more people to understand about Blessed Seelos, so we decided to do a concert.”
The proceeds are for Seelos Center and shrine’s upkeep and renovation, administration, operation and to promote his sainthood cause. The shrine is open weekdays from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m., is at 919 Josephine St. Tours, walk-ins, field trip groups and retreats welcomed. Call 525-2495 or visit seelos.org.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blessed Seelos Concert:
WHAT: Benefit concert for the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, featuring Laura Bretan (laurabretanmusic.com), a 17-year-old soprano who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and Eurovision.
WHEN: Nov. 3: 5 p.m. program begins; 6 p.m. buffet with singer; 7 p.m. concert
St. Mary’s Assumption Church, 923 Josephine St. (at Constance), New Orleans.
DONATION: $125 a person for buffet and concert; $85 concert only.