Healer and Miracle Worker
It was a miracle waiting to happen. In 1966, a medical examination revealed that Angela Boudreaux’s abdomen was swollen to proportions of a six-month pregnancy from a liver nine times normal size. A preliminary biopsy found no liver tissue at all, and exploratory surgery determined that 90 percent of the liver was simply “replaced” by a malignant tumor. A number of pathologists confirmed the findings. Angela, a wife and mother of four young children, was told she had two weeks to live.
On her way home from the New Orleans hospital, she prayed at the tomb of a saint-in-the-making, Father Francis Xavier Seelos, and was blessed with his Redemptorist mission cross. When Angela was still alive a month later, she was placed on a highly experimental chemotherapy with little chance of success; she was also warned that the toxic chemicals were painful enough to confine her to bed for a full year.
Angela suffered no side effects and made a complete recovery. A few years later, gallbladder surgery revealed only minor scars on her liver. Her surgeon was not aware of such an advanced case of liver cancer being cured so rapidly—especially considering the rudimentary chemotherapy available at that time. Her non-Catholic surgeon, a self-described man of science—whom Angela had persuaded to wear a memento of Father Seelos during her exploratory surgery—said it was the closest thing to a miracle he had ever witnessed.
Consequently, Angela felt certain of her mission: She would share with others “the marvels God has done” in her own life through Father Seelos’s intercession and further his canonization cause by ministering at the Seelos Center. Given two weeks to live by doctors in 1966, Angela and her husband had a special reason to travel to Rome in the Solemn Jubilee Year 2000. Her cure almost thirty-five years earlier was unanimously approved by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints as the miracle needed to beatify Father Seelos. Angela’s participation in the beatification ceremony of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos was in thanksgiving to God for a lifespan doubled and a lifelong mission fulfilled.
THE GREAT HEALER
The gentleness and compassion of Father Seelos attracted many people to the sacraments. He was a man of profound joy, deep prayer, and extraordinary zeal. Known as the saint of the Redemptorist itinerant mission band, Seelos also had a reputation for sanctity while assigned to various ministries in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Cumberland, Detroit, and New Orleans—where he died at age forty-eight during the yellow fever epidemic in 1867. In addition to the inner spiritual healings for which Seelos was widely known, the Holy Spirit worked through him on numerous occasions to provide physical healings to people in dire need.
“Father Seelos, cure me,” was the plea of a crippled man who picked up his crutches and tossed them out a rectory window in Pittsburgh. “My good man,” replied Father Seelos, “I’m no doctor. I cannot cure you.” Nevertheless, Seelos returned a few moments later with a Bible in hand to read from the Gospel of Saint John and to pray intently over his visitor. Then the man slowly stood upright, praising God so exuberantly that he left the crutches behind!
On another occasion, Simon Sell was hospitalized with severe internal injuries after falling from a scaffold at work. His three doctors were all in agreement: “Simon, there is no hope. You are going to die.” Father Seelos administered the last sacraments and later visited him frequently. Seelos’s fervent prayers brought tears to the eyes of family members at the bedside. Within three months, Mr. Sell was well enough to move around on crutches. He eventually returned to work and lived for several more years.
Testimonials portraying the healing power through Seelos’s prayers form a virtual continuum in the almost 150 years since his death. In 1869—only two years after Seelos died—a teenager was cured of a lung tumor when her family in New Orleans offered a novena requesting the intercession of Father Seelos. In 1872, a dying infant in Pittsburgh was healed of pneumonia and meningitis when his grandmother invoked Seelos’s prayers. Sophie Brinker, who attributed two cures to Seelos’s supplication, testified in 1902 that she was told of his sanctity by many people, and added that “the entire congregation of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Cumberland, Maryland, venerate him as a saint.” In 1938, a six-year-old Louisiana youth miraculously recovered from the paralysis of polio after his mother prayed at the tomb of Seelos.
J. William Hunt of Cumberland Times-News noted in 1963, “Descendants of those who knew this saintly priest tell of the veneration in which he was held by their grandparents and great-grandparents, and of seemingly miraculous cures due to his intercession.” Indeed, during his life and after his death, Seelos’s remarkable reputation for holiness has never diminished!
HIS CAUSE FOR SAINTHOOD
Only the miracles after the death of a holy person are considered in the canonization process. For the Church, when miracles occur to people who prayerfully invoke a deceased individual, it is a sign that the candidate is truly in heaven with God, interceding for God to grant those miracles.
In a 2006 papal letter, Pope Benedict XVI insisted that candidates in the saint-making process must “truly enjoy a firm and widespread reputation for holiness.” Furthermore, the Holy Father clarified the need for a candidate to be credited with “a physical miracle, since a moral miracle does not suffice.” The Pope himself is looking for a “signal from God” in the form of a miracle to confirm the Church’s judgment that the virtuous life of a candidate is authentic.
How does all this affect the one miracle still needed to canonize Blessed Seelos? For the Redemptorist Postulator General, Father Antonio Marrazzo, any case must “present an immediate, complete and lasting healing in an evident and clear manner,” in order for it to be declared “unquestionably inexplicable.” He adds, “I am convinced that Blessed Francis Seelos will not lack ‘making himself alive’ in a case that is truly incontrovertible.” In the relatively short time since his beatification in April 2000, a substantial case has been extensively documented for review.
The case to be presented to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints involves a cure of metastasized esophageal cancer. If the Congregation determines the cure is miraculous, Seelos will then be recommended to the Holy Father for canonization.
Mary Ellen Heibel, who was a devout Catholic and parishioner of Saint Mary’s Church in Annapolis where Father Seelos was assigned during the Civil War, is currently under scrutiny. In 2004, cancer had spread beyond her esophagus to her liver, lungs, back, and sternum, and medical treatment had failed. Doctors told her there was nothing further they could do and that she had only months to live.
The cancer disappeared completely one week after she and others began a Seelos novena in her parish in early 2005. Incidentally, like Angela Boudreaux decades before her, Mary Ellen had persuaded her primary physician to wear a Seelos memento during her exploratory surgery.
Mary Ellen passed away in October 2009 at age seventy-one due to complications from pneumonia. Her untimely death does not hinder the case presently under investigation, since her cause of death was in no way related to her cure from cancer. If still alive, a person purportedly healed should be interviewed as part of the canonization process. Interestingly enough, in the weeks prior to her death, Mary Ellen was not only officially deposed and interviewed under oath by the Baltimore Archdiocesan Tribunal, but a complete scan a month before her death proved conclusively that no trace of cancer was evident in her body.
Nevertheless, while the Redemptorists and the Archdiocese of Baltimore would not have proceeded to this point if Mary Ellen’s case had little merit, it is not a foregone conclusion until the Holy Father makes a decision on the matter. For this reason, prayers have now been intensified for this cure to be accepted in the foreseeable future as the miracle needed to canonize Seelos, the miracle worker.
THE POWER OF GOD
Miracles attributed to the intercession of saints manifest the power of God. Jesus referred to his own signs as occasions in which God’s power was evident in him and through him: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Lk 7:22). Not only was faith a prerequisite for these signs to occur, but the miracle stories of Jesus were subsequently written primarily to instill faith.
Steven Sora in Treasures from Heaven states that while the results of a doctor’s role are measurable, the results of faith and the actions of saints are not. “It does not mean that the miraculous does not exist. While it may seem that science and religion are at odds, in the future that may change. For now, science is just too young to understand.”
Saints invite intercession, inspiration, and imitation. To seek the prayers of those in heaven, as do loved ones who are still living, is to belong to the household of God in which heaven and earth, the living and deceased, are all divinely connected.
Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser in Against an Infinite Horizon writes that belief in a communion of saints “says that we can relate to them, speak to them, and be spoken to by them. The bond of love and of family still exists between those who have died and ourselves, and we can still be present to each other and influence each other’s lives.”
In every generation our bountiful God sends us true witnesses of the faith to inspire us and remind us of our universal call to holiness. In Father Seelos’s lifetime, few people could dwell long in his company without being made better by his presence and powerful prayers. Likewise, we are made better by his intercession and the example of his life and goodness. If it is God’s will, Blessed Francis Seelos may one day be included in the official company of canonized saints; but when we imitate his virtues, true to the gospel of Christ, we already share with him in the fellowship of the saints—to which we all belong.
Editor’s note: Shortly after the December 2011 issue went to press, the Redemptorists were advised not to proceed with the Process of Mary Ellen Heibel’s cure from esophageal cancer in the canonization cause of Blessed Francis Seelos . Even though oncologist and medical expert of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints affirm that Heibel’s cure “cannot be scientifically explained,” Heibel’s untimely death from a completely different cause makes it impossible to ascertain a “complete and definitive healing” from the cancer.
Redemptorist Postulator General, Rev. Antonio Marrazzo, is “convinced that in the future, we will have an extraordinary and unquestionable case that will make it possible for us to celebrate the canonization of Blessed Seelos.”