David E. Nantais
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The Solanus Casey Center is an urban oasis on Detroit’s east side, situated among signs of death and decay. Much of the surrounding neighborhood is a distressing collection of crumbling homes and vacant lots, stark reminders of the 1967 summer riots when Detroit burned. To the west is Mt. Elliot Cemetery, one of the largest Christian burial grounds in the city. As desolate as it is, this setting is an ideal location for a memorial to Venerable Solanus Casey, a Capuchin Franciscan who devoted his life to serving the city’s poor, sick, outcast and suffering people. Father Solanus had an ability to see potential and beauty in people and situations where others saw only human refuse and devastation. The city of Detroit itself is much in need of realizing the potential it holds beneath its grimy exterior, and Father Solanus would make an especially appropriate patron saint.

Bernard Francis Casey, known as Barney, was born in Prescott, Wis., on Nov. 25, 1870, to an Irish immigrant family. As a young man, he had a momentary experience of the brutality of the world that radically shifted his concept of life. While at work as a trolley conductor in Superior, Wis., he once saw a drunken sailor standing over a woman lying on the tracks; the sailor held a knife in his hand and yelled at the woman, threatening her life. Casey realized that this incident was not an isolated one—that the world was full of such violence. He also realized he wanted to make things better. He prayed for the sailor and his victim, and a few days later told his pastor that he wanted to become a priest.

At St. Francis De Sales diocesan seminary in Milwaukee, Casey floundered academically in courses taught in Latin and in German. After four years there he was advised to enter a religious order instead. He entered the Capuchins at St. Bonaventure’s Monastery in Detroit on Christmas Eve 1896. He received the habit and took the name Francis Solanus, by which he would be known for the rest of his life.

Solanus’s superiors believed that his struggles with academic work during formation would prove an impediment to full priestly status, so they ordained him a “simplex” priest, one who could neither preach nor hear confessions officially. He performed rudimentary duties like serving as porter at the monastery. Yet Solanus fully embraced his mission and greeted each person with such joy and respect that it evolved into a ministry of hospitality and spiritual counsel. Because of his gentle nature, which put people at ease and encouraged even the despairing to hope, Solanus earned the nickname “the holy priest.”

The Counsellor

Father Solanus’s caring presence and reputation for listening intently to each person also drew thousands to the monastery. “Do we appreciate the little faith we have?” Solanus once asked a friend. “Do we ever beg God for more?” Solanus counseled his visitors to do both. He welcomed alcoholics and the homeless in the same way he welcomed local dignitaries like Mayor Frank Murphy. By looking beyond the superficial—a person’s drunkenness, addiction, poverty, grief or uncouth behavior—Solanus showed people their reflection as “beloved” in God’s eyes.

One person who made the short pilgrimage across town to St. Bonaventure’s was my grandmother’s sister, Mary Louise. She brought my aunt Debby as an infant to Father Solanus because the child suffered from a painful skin condition, and home remedies had proved inadequate. Soon after the visit to Father Solanus, Debby’s skin cleared up. When I recently heard my Great-aunt Mary Louise recount this story, I was amazed not only by the outcome, but by her faith in the humble Solanus, whom she still reveres.

During the Great Depression, unemployed men lined up outside St. Bonaventure’s asking for food; Solanus helped to provide soup and sandwiches. Soon the few dozen men the Capuchins fed each day grew to hundreds. Father Solanus worked at the soup kitchen, recruited volunteers and elsewhere begged for food and funds to keep the kitchen open. One day food supplies ran short and the staff became concerned that a riot might break out. Solanus assured them that God would provide and invited the men in the line to join in praying the Our Father. Within minutes a bakery truck pulled up, full of donations for the soup kitchen. “Nobody will starve as long as you put your confidence in God,” said Solanus.

Today the spirit of Solanus Casey is alive at the Capuchin soup kitchen, which has found new ways—like the Earthworks project—to peel back the surface of blight and expose the richness and potential within. One of the first of its kind, the Earthworks project grows hundreds of pounds of food each season on 1.5 acres of urban garden, some of it to feed the homeless and some to sell for revenue. Earthworks is not only an agricultural endeavor but also a community development project like dozens of others sprouting up around the city. Neighbors cooperate to clear vacant land (some formerly occupied by a crack house) and recruit local kids to lend a hand and make connections with the earth. To gaze upon soil permeated with pollution (the E.P.A. calls them brownfields) and see possibility—that is the spirit of Father Solanus.

Soon a Saint?

Solanus long practiced his ministry of presence, listening and praying. He never turned people away; in fact, he wanted to see them as soon as they arrived, even at the expense of his own plans. But the ministry exhausted him. Sometimes he would fall asleep while praying in the monastery chapel and startle his fellow Capuchins when he awoke and sat upright in the pew.

When Father Solanus passed away on July 31, 1957, people lined up for two straight days to view his body before burial. Detroit had lost a saint.

It was inevitable that the cause for Solanus’s canonization would be introduced, considering how much he was loved and the thousands of people he had helped. A petition to begin the process was filed under Cardinal John Dearden in 1981. Six years later, Solanus’s body was exhumed and found to be intact. It was transferred to a new coffin and reinterred in a tomb beneath the floor of St. Bonaventure’s, in what is now part of the Father Solanus Casey Center. Each year hundreds of people visit, leaving their requests for prayers and favors on folded pieces of paper above Solanus’s tomb. In 1995 Pope John Paul II declared Father Solanus “venerable.”

His cause for beatification, according to Richard Merling, O.F.M.Cap, director of the Father Solanus Guild, requires one medically verified healing miracle. A number of documented miracles have been sent to Rome, and the guild is awaiting approval. If Solanus is canonized soon, he could become the first U.S.-born male saint.

Detroit has suffered for a long time, and recent financial problems, a crumbling urban infrastructure and a corrupt former mayor have deflated the spirits of many residents. If Father Solanus were alive, he would be saddened, I think, but he would not stand idle. No, he would encourage people to search for the budding grace of God, present among them like a lone flower in bloom among the weeds and trash of an abandoned city lot.

 

David Nantais is an adjunct instructor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Comments

6088610 | 6/23/2009 - 7:41pm

Thank you for running ths article on Fr Solanus Casey.  As a grand-niece of his,  I am always pleased at seeing new articles and totally awed by the love and interest of so many people from all over the country.  I had the privilege of meeting him twice - once in 1945 when I was 15 and he came to Seattle for the First Mass of his nephew. Fr. John McCluskey, SJ.  At a family picnic, this holy person I had heard so much about and was in awe of, was so very human.  He played ball and took boat rides with us - so normal.  What a wonderful experience of holiness in everyday life for a young teenager to witness! 

 

Bernard Campbell | 6/16/2009 - 9:02pm
Fr. Solanus, Is heald in high regard by the members of his community. As a member of the Capuchin community, I would be very proud to see such and ordinary and humble person cannonized as the first American born saint in our Church.
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 6/16/2009 - 8:34am
In 1950 at 18, I had the privilege of serving two Masses celebrated by Ven. Solanus Casey, assigned to do so by Capuchin Brother Leo Wollenweber who was later appointed Vice Postulator of the Cause. Once as I observed Fr. Solanus walking at prayer around the Monastery cloister the booming voice of the Brother Office Manager shattered the monastic quiet announcing, "Fr. Solanus, telephone call!" The holy priest began running towards the phone when the "Father Guardian" (that's the title Capuchins use for the local superior) also walking in the vicinity, called out jokingly, "Fr. Solanus, slow down!" Immediately the running priest began to walk even though as I could see, everything in him was saying, "Run!" Fr. Solanus's prompt obedience to the voice of Religious Authority greatly impressed me! Years later I told Fr. Cosmas Neidhammer, one of three Capuchin priest-brother, one Bishop of Bluefields, Nicaragua, about the incident. Fr. Cosmas told me later than when called to testify before a Diocesan Tribunal about the heroicity of virtue of Fr. Solanus, he included in his testimony my witness. I felt great that in so doing I would have a little somthing to do with the Beatification of Fr. Solanus, God willing. It seems to me these day when so many pay scant attention to the Religious Authority of the Catholic Church, specifically in the teaching of the Bishops, that Fr. Solanus would be the perfect example and patron saint of what Religious Obedience is all about! It's said, God never raises up individuals as outstanding models of holiness without a precise purpose beneficial to the People of God. In addition to his Obedience factor, what might God's other purpose be in our day,in raising to the Honors of the Altar a Simplex Priest? Maybe the Holy Spirit might be offering a way for married men to be ordained as priests, perhaps in the role of "auxilary priests" assisting Pastors with weekend ministry, ordained in the Simplex Mode, with the celibate clergy functioning as full-facultied priests. Many former priests desiring to return to ministry, some married, may also find an avenue of return to partial ministry in the Simplex Mode, these designated "auxiliary" priests" used acording to pastoral need and the discretion of the Bishop. Incidentally, I recall reading somewhere that, at some point in Fr. Solanus's ministry his Superiors considered granting him full priestly Faculties, but as Religious Authority did not pursue it, neither did he. Another example of Obedience to the Church! Of course only God in his own way and in his own time knows the outcome. In the meantime let's keep praying for the speedy Beatification of our holy and humble American priest-friend, Solanus Casey!
J.Keane | 6/16/2009 - 7:58am
Interesting story. The Miracle needed? Family says prayer cured son's cancer Sunday, May 24, 2009 Last updated: Sunday May 24, 2009, 9:49 AM BY ASHLEY KINDERGAN NorthJersey.com STAFF WRITER RIVER EDGE — A borough resident is on a mission to get saint status for a beloved Detroit priest, who he believes answered prayers to heal his son's cancer. Kevin Blute hopes the Vatican will make the Rev. Solanus Casey the first male saint born in the U.S., and suggested a friend's prayer group name itself after the friar. Blute's teenage son, Ryan, was diagnosed with melanoma in 2007 and has since recovered. "I feel like I'm in gratitude to him big time, and so I want to do everything I can," said Blute, 50. "I also think it would be great for the country if we had an American-born male saint." The local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic service and prayer group, is now helping fellow member Blute with his cause. The group now has about 100 active members from North Jersey. They have held fund-raisers for local charities and marched in parades in Bergenfield and Yonkers, N.Y., with a big banner bearing Casey's name, hoping to pique people's interest. The Church has already declared Casey venerable, the second step in a four-stage canonization process. Now, the friar's supporters need to document miracles that can be attributed to Casey's intercession. Blute hopes that people with miraculous stories will come forward. To the Blute family, Ryan's story is a miracle. But the fact that he was treated with interferon immunotherapy for a year after his diagnosis may make his case a tough sell for the Vatican. The Church needs to document stories in which medical treatment cannot possibly explain a recovery. Ryan Blute was diagnosed with melanoma on his 14th birthday after having a mole removed in 2007. His grandmother, Anne Blute, belongs to a Father Solanus Casey prayer group in Yonkers, where the priest served at Sacred Heart Friary from 1904 to 1918. She gave Ryan a Father Solanus Casey relic badge to wear. The family started praying to Casey, too. The cancer had spread to Ryan's lymph nodes, which doctors removed. Three days after the surgery, all the scans for cancer came back clean and subsequent scans have stayed that way. Today, he is one of the top hitters on the River Dell High School baseball team. Casey, a Capuchin friar, has long had a devoted following in Detroit, where he spent most of his career. Capuchins there have created the Solanus Casey Center and a guild that advocates for his canonization and documents possible miracles. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican has not yet accepted any of the guild's submissions as miracles, said Brother Leo Wollenweber, a friar in Detroit and vice-postulator for Casey "He had a great reputation for holiness," Wollenweber said. "He was very ordinary, very human, very interested in people and very easy to talk to." Casey, the son of Irish immigrants, joined the Capuchin friars. He was ordained a priest in 1904, but was not permitted to hear confessions. He is most famous for his service as doorkeeper at the St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, where he started a soup kitchen, counseled people and gained a reputation as a healer. One tale about Casey holds that a local Chevrolet plant was saved from the brink of collapse by an influx of orders that came in after an executive signed the company up to receive prayers from a Mass association that Casey promoted. "He's a possible saint out of central casting," said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University. "He fits a classical profile of someone who was heroically interested in the people who came to his door." The president of a Detroit Hibernians chapter named after Casey hopes Blute's group will help to carry the torch in the future. The Detroit order still runs a charity event that feeds more than 1,000 people on Super Bowl Sunday, but members are getting older, said Bill Byrne, its president. "It's been hard to get recruits," Byrne said. "What's great about what Kevin and his group is, they've got about 100 guys, and they're mostly 40 and under." If the faith of a new generation is what the movement to canonize Casey needs, it has found a young believer in Ryan. The high school junior keeps a relic of Solanus in his wallet when he goes for scans at the hospital and when he took the SAT. "When I need help, he's always with me," Ryan said. E-mail: kindergan@northjersey.com
James Axtell | 6/15/2009 - 9:02pm
As a native Detroiter, I recall many stories of Father Solanus. Thank you for this article!
Andrew Russell | 6/15/2009 - 4:12pm
For some reason, Fr. Solanus said his first Mass at St. Joseph Parish, Appleton, WI. A generous donor, parishioners, and our pastor, Fr. Larry Abler, OFMCap. have erected a stunning statue of a young Fr. Solanus extending a loaf of bread to commemorate that. The life-size statue is in a thin, old courtyard that has been transformed into a beautiful prayer garden. This spring, a dove nested in the hood "Solanus's" habit, and fledged a chick. It is a wonderful sign of people who followed Solanus's example and saw beauty in an unlikely place.

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