- Sincerely, Seelos: The Collected Letters of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos
The collected letters of Francis Xavier Seelos (1819–67), the Redemptorist missionary priest and Bavarian immigrant to the United States who was beatified in 2000, are an astonishingly rich resource. This new annotated edition of Seelos’s letters, expertly compiled by the Redemptorist historian and archivist Carl Hoegerl, is an elegantly produced volume that, although clearly designed with scholars in mind, will be quite appealing to devotional readers as well. The editor has wisely chosen to provide all of the 201 extant letters in their entirety, including fragments where these are all that exist, as well as reproductions of hand-drawn sketches from Seelos’s original letters. Summaries of the contents of each letter, which are arranged chronologically in the book, are also given with headings that make for easy browsing. Each section features introductory commentary and background by the editor.
Seelos, often referred to as the “cheerful ascetic,” sacrificed much to come to the United States in response to the American bishops’ calls for missionaries to the burgeoning immigrant communities whose demand for priests far outpaced the available supply. Seelos served immigrant parishes across Pennsylvania and New York in addition to making visits to churches as far away as Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. His final station was in New Orleans, where he died of yellow fever in 1867. His cult quickly took off after his death, since his fame for sanctity had begun to spread even during his lifetime. Seelos, who would have been appointed bishop of Pittsburgh by Pope Pius IX but for his desperate pleading to be passed over for the honor, was a popular confessor and parish mission preacher who despite the rigors and penances of his own private spiritual life, enjoyed a reputation for gentleness, compassion, and humor, often “acting out” the parts of characters in the Gospels in his preaching.
This collection of Seelos’s letters is remarkable for the rare glimpses it offers into several aspects of nineteenth-century religious life spanning about twenty-five years. It records not only the author’s own experiences and perceptions but also provides place descriptions and accounts of meetings with prominent individuals, insight into formation experiences in religious orders of women and men, spiritual advice, and poetry. Abundant and detailed information can also be gleaned about early American Catholic education, challenges to immigrant Catholics from both nativists and the harshness of frontier life, the author’s experiences ministering to Civil War soldiers, and his often strongly voiced opinions about the war, among much else.
One of the most interesting passages in these letters is Seelos’s account of his personal meeting with Abraham Lincoln in July 1863, when he sought and gained an audience with the president to ask that Redemptorist seminarians be exempted from the draft: “I and another father went to Father Abraham. He [End Page 638] treated me kindly but [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton—! If the feast of rough characters should ever be celebrated in the Church, Stanton will get an octave added to it” (p. 362). Seelos also writes how he “could never see how the poor Irishmen rushed with such an eagerness into that bloody war” since the northern abolitionists, whom he saw as ultimately responsible for what was in his view a preventable war, “will reward them by persecuting their religion and faith. . .” (p. 358).
Hoegerl notes in his introduction his choice to leave misspellings as they are found in Seelos’s originals, which “presents him as he spoke English: with a noticeable German accent” (p. 11). This book is indeed a most valuable contribution to American Catholic history and a commendable achievement by its producers.