“Make everything count for eternity’: The story of Fr. Francis X. Lasance

Rev. F.X. Lasance suffered from debilitating headaches during 63 years of priesthood, but the fruit of his suffering was a steady stream of more than 40 devotional books and missals across five decades.

(Image courtesy of the author)

St. Joseph Calasanctius, founder of the Piarist order and the patron saint of Catholic schools, once wrote, “All suffering is slight to gain Heaven.” St. Agapitus, a third-century martyr who was tortured with hot coals and beheaded, told his captors: “What better fortune could possibly befall me than to lose my head here, to have it crowned hereafter in Heaven?”

Father Francis X. Lasance understood these great Catholic men and others across the millennia who have suffered for the faith. He cited them as examples worthy of emulation. “All the saints have suffered with humility, patience and love,” Lasance wrote. “The way of the cross is the road to Heaven.”

Lasance knew suffering. For most of his adult life, the Cincinnati priest endured debilitating headaches that restricted him to a sickbed and sent him to Europe in search of relief. This kind of untreatable chronic pain might have driven another person mad, but Fr. Lasance persevered and grew in holiness. Through decades of constant pain, he kept the example of the saints before him; men like St. Alphonse Liguori, the great Doctor of the Church. “Let us be convinced that in this vale of tears,” Liguori wrote, “true peace of heart can not be found except by him who endures and lovingly embraces sufferings to please Almighty God.”

It is difficult to quantify how much Fr. Lasance suffered across more than 63 years of priesthood. He described the headaches as torture. His irritated nerves caused immense physical pain. Even a slight draft could bring agony, so he kept the windows closed in church, even in the heat of summer. There was no self-pity in him, though, and he quietly carried this cross on his slight 5 foot 8 inch frame. He rarely spoke of his travails, except when asked by his archbishop and a few close friends.

Out of such struggles came great spiritual riches. The fruit of Lasance’s suffering came through his writing — a steady stream of more than 40 devotional books and missals across five decades that, quite literally, taught much of the world how to pray. Seventy-five years after his death, a growing collection of Fr. Lasance books is in print once more — a resplendent treasury of the Catholic faith waiting for new generations to discover.  

“By suffering we become like to Christ and His Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Sorrows,” Lasance wrote in My Prayer-Book, one of his most popular titles. “Suffering was the lot of all of the saints. Suffering is very meritorious. Suffering intensifies our love of God. Suffering has a refining influence upon our character. Suffering tends to free us from selfish motives and purifies our aspirations.” Every trial in life, he wrote, “can be turned into a blessing by the will of the Christian sufferer.”

Despite his infirmities, Fr. Lasance maintained a positive, upbeat attitude. He promoted virtues like patience, humility and kindness. He wrote in poetic tones of the need to focus on happiness. Perhaps his most beloved work, My Prayer-Book, “aims to point out the brighter side of life — the silver lining to the cloud o’erhead — the sunshine that follows the rain — the sweet little wildflowers that grow by the wayside amid thorns and briers,” he wrote in the introduction.  

“All desire it, but many do not attain to it because they seek it where it cannot be found,” Lasance wrote. “Seek happiness in goodness, in virtue, in loving God; in loving your neighbor, in doing good for others for the love of Jesus Christ — that is they key-note, the dominant note of this book.”

Father Lasance said his prayer books aim to “lay stress upon the advantages of being sweet-spirited and sunny-tempered, of diffusing around us an atmosphere of good cheer.” Quoting St. Francis de Sales, Lasance wrote, “he who believes in infinite Providence, which extends even to the lowest worm, must expect good from all that happens to him.”

Because God is good, Lasance wrote, “He loves us as a Father and our sorrows are blessings in disguise.”

A Son of Cincinnati

Francis Xavier Lasance was born on Jan. 24, 1860, the third son of August Lasance and the former Wilhelmina Detert. His father — a merchant tailor — emigrated from Germany, arriving in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve 1847. The Lasance family tree has a long history in the villages of Lower Saxony near the German border with the Netherlands. August and Wilhelmina were married in 1854. Little Frank was just 4 years old when his mother died in September 1864. His sister Lizzie was 2 months old. The family was then raised by his father and stepmother, Anna Maria.

Father Lasance’s “The New Roman Missal” (1937), “My Prayer Book” (1908) and “Our
Lady Book” (1924).

Faith life in the Lasance family centered around the parish of St. Mary’s, a beautiful cathedral-like church in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (the parish is now known as Old St. Mary’s). Francis and his three siblings attended St. Mary’s School, just a few blocks east of the family home on Grant Street. In 1873, he began secondary studies at St. Xavier High School. Francis distinguished himself in the study of Latin and Christian doctrine. 

After graduating in 1876, Lasance enrolled at St. Xavier College, garnering honors in Latin, Greek, Precepts and Original Composition. After earning his degree in June 1880, he began study for the priesthood at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. He was ordained on May 24, 1883 by Coadjutor Bishop (later archbishop) William Henry Elder at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. Father Lasance said his first Mass on May 27 at St. Mary’s Church.

Although he would spend the twilight of his priesthood in seclusion, Fr. Lasance began ministry as a parish priest in Kenton, Reading, Dayton, Lebanon and Monroe, Ohio. His work was often hampered by poor health that forced him to take rest breaks. On Christmas Eve 1889, The Dayton Herald noted that Fr. Lasance had been ill, but said he “has entirely recovered and will be able to enjoy Christmas in his accustomed good health.” Not for long. In early 1890, his doctors recommended a radical change in scenery. With a $700 gift from parishioners, Fr. Lasance boarded the steamer City of Berlin just after Easter, bound for Europe with five other priests from the Midwest.

Perhaps the sea air on the 3,040-mile voyage was good for the young priest’s headaches, but the trip was perilous. Frequent gales rocked the ship, “tossed about like a toy boat,” sending passengers tumbling. Seasickness was an unwelcome companion. “I paid my tribute to Neptune, the grey old god of the sea, before night had enveloped our ship in darkness,” Lasance wrote weeks later. “I was indeed very sick during the first day and night.” Displaying his wit and skill with the pen, Lasance wrote, “For five days, nearly all the passengers were spitting and yawning and belching and vomiting — and the faces of those who were sick were pale and indicative of the greatest misery.”  

Father Lasance traveled to Dover, England; Ireland, France, Switzerland, and of course Rome, the eternal city. He spent several days at Lourdes, visiting the birthplace of St. Bernadette Soubirous and the famous grotto at Massabielle where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1858.  “The grotto, which I visited frequently, is full of crutches and surgical instruments, used by cripples and blind and sick people,” he wrote. “The former owners were miraculously cured at Lourdes.”

It is a distinct possibility that Fr. Lasance did not ask for a cure at Lourdes, although he was moved by the impact the shrine had on so many lives. “Here the sick are healed, the weak grow strong, tepid souls are made fervent and sinners become saints,” he wrote. His ailments continued to plague him after his return to Ohio in August 1890. 

It became apparent that his health would keep him from a return to parish ministry. He resigned as assistant pastor of Dayton’s Emmanuel Church in September 1890. He was named chaplain for St. Francis Hospital in Cincinnati, and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian missionary order located in the East Walnut Hills section of the city.  

The sisters were building an all-girls school, Notre Dame Academy. Lasance took up residence on the grounds of the new convent at Our Lady’s Summit in April 1891. He lived in a small renovated cottage nicknamed “The Hermitage,” located near the front entrance to the grounds. In 1903, he donated a life-size crucifix by Raffl of Paris that was placed above the altar in the convent’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel. As spiritual director for Cincinnati’s Tabernacle Society, he helped raise funds so hundreds of poor churches could be properly outfitted with liturgical vestments, altar linens, benediction veils, sacred art and other items for divine worship.

St. Francis Hospital was Fr. Lasance’s home from 1924 until his death in December 1946.

The headaches and related infirmities never left him. Father Lasance became ill while at the Cincinnati cathedral on June 17, 1896, forcing him to retreat home in his buggy. His horse slipped on the streetcar rails at Fifth and Main streets, breaking the buggy shaft and flinging Fr. Lasance into the air. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Fr. Lasance, “with rare presence of mind, managed to keep his feet. Looking around him he saw that an electric car had just been stopped within a few feet of him and then (he) realized how fortunate an escape from death he had.”

Father Lasance wrote occasional essays for The Catholic Telegraph, a weekly newspaper. He was inspired to write one of his longest pieces while riding a Walnut Hills cable car in the spring of 1894. He listened to the man seated next to him rail against the clergy for not doing enough from the pulpit to stem drunkenness and intemperance. After that animated discussion, Fr. Lasance put his pen to the subject and crafted a journalistic stemwinder that took up much of the front page of the Telegraph on June 14, 1894. In it, he condemned everything from the location of saloons near Catholic churches to the number of Catholics who operate such establishments.  

Father Lasance called the saloon “The Devil’s Chapel of Ease” and implored civil authorities to strictly enforce the blue laws forbidding drinking establishments to open on Sundays. He spoke of dissuading the “standing army” of men in the church vestibule who spit tobacco juice on the floor and ducked out of Mass to find a tavern with an open back door. He bemoaned witnessing “on a Sunday morning, during High Mass, Catholic men entering and emerging from the back door of a saloon, conveniently situated on the corner opposite the Catholic Church. What a crying shame and disgrace it is to see men leaving the church just before the sermon to satisfy their vile craving for liquor.”

Author & Editor

Father Lasance’s new role at the Notre Dame convent set the stage for his long publishing career. In 1897, he began his collaboration with the publisher Benziger Brothers with introduction of Manual of the Holy Eucharist. A year later he published Visits to Jesus in the Tabernacle, a 640-page devotional that sold for $1.25. The Catholic Union and Times called it “the most important, most complete and most practical book on the Blessed Sacrament that has yet appeared in English.”

Over the next decade, Lasance published the globally popular My Prayer-Book, The Catholic Girl’s Guide, The Young Man’s Guide and Prayer Book for Religious. The beautifully bound books had leather covers, red or gilded page edges, rounded page corners and beautiful illustrations. They were comprehensive, with topical reflections, counsels, a wide range of prayers and devotions, the Order of the Mass, Vespers and more. He never took royalties from the millions of books sold around the world, and asked that resources be used to provide copies to the poor.

“Prayer is truly a conversation between God and the soul; in prayer we address ourselves to God and He, our Heavenly Father, in His love and kindness speaks to us,” Lasance wrote in With God. “In prayer the soul breathes the atmosphere of paradise and by its union with God and its elevation to heavenly contemplation, it enjoys a foretaste of the happiness of the saints in the celestial Eden.”

In 1924, Fr. Lasance retired as a chaplain to the Notre Dame nuns and took up residence at St. Francis Hospital on Cincinnati’s west side. Founded by the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, the hospital served the indigent, elderly and incurably ill. If he wasn’t saying Mass or accepting a visitor, Fr. Lasance could usually be found in his room, kneeling in prayer or working on one of his books. He was always neatly dressed in his cassock and biretta, despite his constant headaches. He often slept in an upright chair in his study as a form of mortification.

Pope Pius XI praised Fr. Lasance for his devotional books in May 1927 after learning from Cincinnati Archbishop John T. McNicholas about Lasance’s persistent physical suffering. “The most reverend Archbishop of Cincinnati has informed the Holy Father of your modesty, which prompts you to conceal your intellectual activities, and of your great zeal for souls manifested for many years notwithstanding your poor health,” wrote Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, papal secretary of state, at the Holy Father’s direction. 

“His Holiness wishes that these volumes, which assuredly will promote the spiritual life, may receive an ever-increasing welcome in all the Christian families of your great country,” Pius XI’s letter read. Those words are still printed on the front fly leaf of many of Fr. Lasance’s books. The Holy Father imparted his apostolic blessing on Fr. Lasance. At Lasance’s insistence, there was no public recognition of the honor, only a private blessing delivered by the Rev. Louis A. Tieman of Sacred Heart Church. Father Lasance knelt for the blessing. He wept at hearing the Pope’s words, but even in his emotion he deflected attention from himself. “My books, my books, my books,” he said through his tears. Reflecting on the meeting, Fr. Tieman described Lasance as “a real, real saint.”

A Faithful Correspondent

Well into the 1940s, Fr. Lasance sat at a walnut roll-top desk in his tiny study, writing, compiling, editing and updating his books. At night he would typically forego his bed and doze in his favorite chair. He always left the floor lamp behind the chair lit. This quiet, peaceful environment was fertile soil for his work.

In 1937, he completed his magnum opus, The New Roman Missal in Latin and English. It was a liturgical publishing tour de force, with 1,852 pages covering the Church calendar, the Holy Mass, prayers, the saints and many devotions. The first printing carried the imprimatur of Patrick Cardinal Hayes, archbishop of New York. More than 80 years later, the “Lasance Missal” remains the standard by which Mass guides are judged.

In his twilight years, Fr. Lasance carried on correspondence with the daughter of his cousin, Herman. He provided Margaret Mary Lasance with kind and patient spiritual guidance. His favorite advice was offered in Latin, a quote from St. Aloysius Gonzaga: 

Quid hoc ad aeternitatem? 

Loosely translated this means,  “What does this matter in the light of eternity?” In other words, keep your priorities straight. Maintain your focus on Christ and the crown of righteousness that awaits in Heaven. 

After Fr. Lasance’s death, Margaret wrote a tribute entitled “Sweet Remembrance.” She could have just as easily borrowed a title from one of his books, With Saints and Sages. The counsels in his letters were just as valuable as those in his books. “Cling to your holy faith,” he wrote to Margaret in January 1939, “suffer with patience and perfect resignation to the will of God, and make everything count for eternity.”  

Through their letters and Margaret’s visits, we get rare insight into the suffering the priest endured for more than six decades. “I do not think that I shall ever get rid of these severe attacks of neuritis, which come in the night,” he wrote in August 1938. “Nor of the pain (daily pain) in the head caused by neuralgia. Thanks be to God for all his gifts, for suffering, too, by the patient endurance of which we can achieve our sanctification and salvation.” His list of ailments grew as he entered his eighth decade. “My most severe physical trouble now is the condition of my heart and consequent edema (dropsy),” he wrote in September 1940. “Neuritis causes me excruciating pain.” 

His steps were slowed by swollen legs that Margaret said reminded her of beer kegs. During the daily 7 a.m. Mass, Fr. Lasance struggled to elevate the host and chalice at the consecration. The altar boys were used to Father leaning on them as he gingerly stepped down from the altar. In 1945, he fractured his right wrist and fought off a painful infection in his shoulder and arm. “It’s not easy to accept this as an occasion of merit, but Father did,” Margaret wrote. By December 1946, he stopped celebrating Mass.

On December 10, Fr. Lasance suffered a bad fall. He lost consciousness until the evening of December 11. He awoke to find Rev. Charles W. Kuenle of St. Monica’s Cathedral standing over his bed. “I suppose I should be anointed,” he said. Father Kuenle had already administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and was just about to give him viaticum. It was 8:00 p.m. Father Lasance answered all of the prayers as Fr. Kuenle read them. He then whispered his last earthly words — fittingly a prayer included in many of his books: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.”

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 60 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

4 Comments

  1. I hope the cause for sainthood for Fr. Lasance has been opened. His prayer books and Missals are the best. In reprinting them I wish they don’t make the error of dropping the so called archaic language. This practice has caused so much damage to our Catholic prayers. If they have been changed then I am not interested, I’ll stick with buying used ones.

    When it comes to the Cross I remember a Monsignor who in his sermon said, “You will receive nothing from God except through the price of pain”. He was so right, the Cross is a sign of contradiction. How is it that we can only find true happiness through suffering? I say with St. Louis of Montfort, “The Cross fascinates me. Its weight terrifies me”.

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