In 1867, New Orleans was suffering.
Just two years after the Civil War, the city was fighting a new battle. But instead of human foes, scores of people were taken by a disease: yellow fever.
In that year alone, more than 3,000 people died from the disease. The New York Times described New Orleans as a lovely town, noting its recovery after the Civil War but also observing that it was a town in which “lurked a deadly disease that decimated,” as if there were a serial killer on the loose.
This is the city that Father Francis Xavier Seelos entered in 1866 and also where he would perish from yellow fever in 1867 after serving the infected.
Though he was here only for a short time, his memory has not left the Big Easy. His shrine and remains still rest here.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Seelos in St. Peter’s Square, saying at the event that Seelos “invites the members of the Church to deepen their union with Christ in the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist.”
And now, WYES will honor Seelos with a one-man play, written and acted by local Casey Groves.
Groves, a teacher at Grace King High School and adjunct professor at Delgado Community College, thought the story of Seelos was analogous to the work he is trying to do through theater.
“This is a perfect story for me to explore because a lot of my research in acting is about how theater or film can be used for healing purposes, used in a way that can transform difficult situations,” Gross said.
Seelos is venerated for healing abilities, which brought hundreds of people to his doorstep so that they might receive his blessing.
“Here’s this man who is known for his praying over people and they are healed of their illnesses and injuries,” Groves said. “And also people are coming to him for confession, and he has this long line outside of his confessional because people just want to speak to him.
“Whether it was a physical disease or a psychological problem, he was able to help these people through these things. I thought it was a perfect story for me to explore.” Groves chuckles. “And then people also think I look like him.”
Groves first started on the journey to writing this one-man play when he was a student at Del la Salle High School.
His theater director approached him about acting in and writing a play about Saint Damien of Molokai, who worked on the Hawaiian Islands with lepers.
Groves would go around the country and do more than a hundred performances of the Damien play.
Then he became a professional actor and teacher in New York City, but in 2010 he and his wife moved back to New Orleans for work.
After encouragement from his family and the help of two priests — the Rev. George Drance, Groves’ stage director, and the Rev. Byron Miller, the director of the Seelos Center — Groves decided to write a play about Father Seelos. The process took a year and a half and the creation of 28 different characters for him to portray.
William Gil met Groves on the set of a short film they were both working on. Once Groves had described the project, he asked Gil if he would be willing to help film a trailer of the play.
“We went to the Seelos Shrine to do some work for the trailer,” said Gil, “and while we’re there, some little old ladies said, ‘Oh, Father Seelos, can we have a DVD of your movie? We’d love to show our friends.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get that to you as soon as we can.’?”
They filmed a preliminary sketch of the performance at Gil’s home in Morgan City and started to sell DVDs at the stage plays, but then WYES got their hands on a copy and everything changed. They were called in for a meeting.
“The studio manager said, ‘Hey, you can use our studio.’ And we shot it there at WYES at their studios with a tremendous amount of help from them,” Gil said.
The film premieres Saturday, Oct. 4 on WYES at 7 p.m. in honor of Father Seelos’ Feast Day on Oct. 5.
But Groves says the play has a message for everybody, not just Catholics.
“Whether you follow a particular faith tradition or not,” he said, “it’s empowering to know that in the midst of whatever difficulties you are facing in life that miracles can happen.”