On Nov. 18 in Detroit, Blessed Solanus Casey will become the second U.S-born priest to be beatified, joining Oklahoma City priest Father Stanley Rother, who was beatified just this September. Among the personal effects belonging to Blessed Stanley at the time of his 1981 martyrdom were several relics. It’s notable that one of those few relics in his possession was a third-class relic of Father Solanus, a Capuchin friar and miracle worker who gained widespread notoriety for his holiness.
The cause of canonization informally began for Blessed Solanus in 1960, when the Father Solanus Guild was established to preserve his memory. Favors began being reported to Rome in the mid-1960s. A canonization cause was initiated via the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1976, and in 1995 it was declared Father Solanus lived a life of heroic virtue, earning him the distinction as the first U.S.-born male to be given the title “venerable.” A miracle attributed to his intercession was validated in 1998, only to be proven false subsequently. On May 4, 2017, Pope Francis approved the miracle attributed to his intercession that cleared the path for his beatification — an event that will be held Nov. 18 at Detroit’s Ford Field in front of an anticipated crowd of 60,000 or more.
Ahead of this special event, we look back at the life of Father Solanus, so well-known as a miracle worker, but who more importantly teaches us how to grow in our own relationships with God and others.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.
Who is Father Solanus Casey?
Born Bernard Francis Casey in Wisconsin to Irish immigrant parents on Nov. 25, 1870, he spent his early years gaining a reputation as diligent and hard working. But not unlike many of the saints, Blessed Solanus struggled in identifying his vocation. Time and again it seemed he had found where God wanted him, only to find out otherwise.
As a young adult he tried his hand at a variety of jobs — from operating a street car to serving as a prison guard. Always personable and charming, Blessed Solanus did not find it too difficult to fit in and develop relationships with those around him.
But Blessed Solanus was left wanting more than just a job. In his young adult years, he thought marriage was in his future — having proposed to a young woman only to have her disapproving mother send her off to a boarding school. A very sensitive man by nature, this experience wounded him deeply. But experiences such as this led him to learn how to unite his sensitivity and the many hurts in his life with the sufferings of Christ.
Searching for his vocation
As is the case with divine providence, when God closes one door he opens another — an even better one. And so he did for Blessed Solanus. This would be shown time and again throughout his life because of the many challenges posed to him regarding his vocation. The unfolding story of his vocation taught him much about the dependence on God’s will and providence; what he learned is the path to his heart’s contentment and peace.
After witnessing a brutal murder of a woman while on duty as a street-car operator in 1891, Blessed Solanus first felt the call to the priesthood. He felt the urge to do something concrete to bring about change in a broken world and make a difference in the lives of others. After praying and reflecting for a few days, Blessed Solanus visited his parish priest and asked how to go about entering the seminary.
He was destined for more hurt and disappointment during his time at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee. Having gone out in search of work as a young man to help his financially struggling family, Blessed Solanus had not completed any schooling higher than eighth grade, and this made his seminary studies difficult. Classes were conducted in German and Latin, and Blessed Solanus struggled academically, particularly with languages.
Although the seminary officials in Milwaukee dismissed him because of his poor grades, they were of the opinion that the religious life might be a good fit for him. He visited the Capuchin Franciscans nearby, but felt no attraction to their life — especially their use of German or their wearing of the cumbersome beards he disliked. Not sure of what to do next, he went home in 1896.
A Love for the violin
Blessed Solanus was given a new name when he professed vows as a Capuchin — after the Franciscan St. Francis Solanus. The Spanish priest was a missionary to South America and known for playing his violin for the native peoples to whom he brought the Gospel. As a means to bring them joy, the saint also would play the violin for the sick and suffering he visited.
The violin was known to bring Blessed Solanus as much joy as it did consolation. He picked up the skill as a young man and would perform at barn dances and the like. He was no prodigy at playing the instrument, but he did his very best. Friars recalled Blessed Solanus playing “Pop Goes The Weasel” and “Turkey in the Straw” among other tunes.
During times of communal recreation, he would play the violin for his confreres, and his melodies often would be accompanied by an Irish tune. His voice was weak and poor, related to a speaking impediment. These performances would often end with Blessed Solanus excusing himself because his confreres more or less would make fun of him. So Blessed Solanus would end up sneaking off to the chapel where he would play his very best for the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
One Christmas, one of his confreres later recalled how he discovered Blessed Solanus alone in the main chapel of the friary, playing Christmas carols for the newborn Christ in the manger. “He looked so at peace, spending time with the Lord in devotion,” his fellow Capuchin said.
Once, when another brother at his friary went to gather up apples on the monastery grounds, he found no bees coming near him. Then, realizing the miraculous nature of avoiding the well-known pesky bees that swarmed about the monastery grounds, he heard Blessed Solanus’ violin in the background, with all the bees swarming about him. Once he stopped playing, the bees attacked the brother until Blessed Solanus fixed the problem, causing confusion among the bees by removing one of the two queen bees in the hive. Blessed Solanus then blessed the brother, and all the bee stings disappeared, saving his life.
A Selfless Soul
There are numerous stories that illustrate the selflessness of Blessed Solanus. This is, of course, one of the key descriptions of a saint — one who loves as Christ loves is one who lives for others. Blessed Solanus had a weak physical constitution and was prone to developing colds frequently. One of the friars at the monastery urged him to leave his porter’s desk so he could go to bed and get some rest. But a young couple came in and Blessed Solanus spent his time with them instead. Sometime later, the brother saw Blessed Solanus finishing up his visit with the couple. Expressing his regret that Blessed Solanus could not get some much-needed rest, the saintly friar likened the situation to Christ visiting and consoling the women in Jerusalem just before his third fall. This is just one of the many ways when Blessed Solanus mirrored the self-emptying quality of Christ’s love to which each of us is called and by which each of us is challenged.
An Embrace of Suffering
Blessed Solanus recognized the great spiritual opportunity available to those who suffer. This entailed for him a great trust in God’s providence. He knew that God would care for each of us in our physical and spiritual difficulties. The ministry he carried out as the monastery porter brought him in contact with an array of human suffering. He always urged people to take up their crosses joyfully, which would lead to a closer relationship with God. “Do not pray for easy lives,” Blessed Solanus said, “pray to be stronger.”
This must be understood when considering the gifts of healing brought about through the prayers of Blessed Solanus. The healings that occurred brought about a greater good and brought strength in the recipient’s faith. Through all of this, both in embracing sufferings or receiving healings, Blessed Solanus’ sole desire was to bring peace to people’s lives through a stronger relationship with God. This all arose from Blessed Solanus’ total confidence in God’s ways, which he wrote are “always wonderful.”
“In my opinion, there is hardly anything else that the enemy of our soul [that is, Satan] dreads more than confidence in God,” Blessed Solanus said
Entering the Capuchins
Under the tutelage and counsel of a Capuchin in Wisconsin, however, the young Casey decided to give the Capuchins a closer look, although he still was reticent and unenthused. The friar who counseled him even said the beard would help his throat, where he suffered chronic illness. After a lengthy correspondence, Blessed Solanus was accepted into the order.
Throughout his life, Blessed Solanus was especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so he decided to place his future in her hands. After completing a novena in commemoration of her Immaculate Conception, Blessed Solanus received a mystical experience that relayed to him an important message: “Go to Detroit.”
Detroit was home to the novitiate for the Capuchin province of St. Joseph. Nothing else could explain the urgency, then, of his desire to head for Detroit except for the peace and serenity he found. After receiving his bishop’s blessing, he chose to forego a Christmas at home with his family and made his way to Detroit with haste, arriving there on Christmas Eve.
Despite further doubts and fears, Blessed Solanus turned to the Blessed Mother for assistance and felt a sense of peace about the next step. In January, he entered the Capuchins, and with the Franciscan habit, he received a new name, Francis Solanus, after the 17th-century Franciscan missionary to South America who also loved to play the violin.
Ice Cream and Miracles
One hot summer day, Blessed Solanus had seen many people at the door seeking his blessing and counsel. One visitor had come to thank him for his help in one manner or another, bringing ice cream cones to celebrate. Called to another situation, Blessed Solanus sat the ice cream in his desk drawer.
About 30 minutes later, one of the friars returned to the monastery from the dentist’s office. He had gone to arrange an operation to take care of a serious infection of his jaw. Before he left, he sought Blessed Solanus’ blessing, which he received. Blessed Solanus did not believe that religious should normally ask for miracles because they should embrace the sufferings God placed before them. But, as the custom of the day dictated, such a major health complication for a novice likely would mean they would have to leave the order. Blessed Solanus took pity on this friar, and in giving his blessing indicated the dentist might be surprised. Sure enough, the infection was gone.
When the friar returned to the monastery, he recounted the good news. He knew it was the prayer of Blessed Solanus that brought him healing. But Blessed Solanus offered a detraction from any attention that might be paid to him, and he initiated a celebration for the friar’s healing by pulling out the ice cream cones he earlier placed in his desk. They were fully intact and as cold as if they had been in the freezer all along.
Devotion to the Saints
Holiness can be contagious in many ways. One of the interesting aspects of the lives of the saints is studying which saints inspired them along the journey to their own sanctity. Blessed Solanus was devoted to many saints and often would quote them in his notebooks and letters. As far as devotion to the saints goes, first and foremost, Blessed Solanus was a devoted son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He took a keen interest in studying her life, as much as he prayed for her intercession — especially with the Rosary. He often would delight in praying the Glorious Mysteries so as to focus attention on the glory that awaits us in eternity.
As a Capuchin Franciscan, he assuredly was devoted to St. Francis of Assisi and other Capuchin saints, but also was particularly devoted to St. Joseph and St. Thérèse (the Little Flower). One can see how these devotions align themselves with the particular characteristics of Blessed Solanus. In the Gospel, St. Joseph speaks not a word, and his defining characteristic is to be a doer of God’s will. Blessed Solanus desired to do just that above all else in his life.
Devotion to the Little Flower makes sense, too, because in many ways their life stories overlap. Neither achieved earthly greatness in their lives, nor did they often leave the walls of their religious houses. They both carried out the everyday menial tasks assigned to them in the monastery, never complaining, but doing so with much love. They also were mistreated at times by those with whom they lived. And they relied on God’s will for them in everything — something they learned through the difficulties of life. Blessed Solanus frequently would direct young women seeking his counsel toward devotion to the saint of the Little Way.
Growing in holiness
Franciscan life fit like a glove for Blessed Solanus. As a Franciscan, he grew to love the things St. Francis loved and adopted his way of life as his own. Illustrative of the excellence he achieved at Franciscan living, shortly after his death the Capuchin minister general described Blessed Solanus as “an extraordinary example of a true Capuchin, and a replica of St. Francis.”
Blessed Solanus particularly grew to love poverty, for in it he found the graces of self-abandonment. Poverty enabled him to seek the things that mattered most — love of God and love of neighbor. These “greatest commandments” were the keystones of his spirituality.
One of the biggest challenges in the quest for holiness that shows up time and again in the lives of saints is conquering selfishness and being able truly to love others, especially by getting along with them. Another of those challenges is learning to accept who God made you to be.
Blessed Solanus struggled in his quest to grow in patience, particularly with himself. He admitted he must learn how to let go of lifelong temptations to be judgmental and a perfectionist. “If you can honestly humble yourself, your victory is won,” he once said.
Blessed Solanus depended on God’s grace for growth in the spiritual life. Through prayer and experience, he learned not to seek the glory of this world, but to do all for God’s glory. He offers us wisdom in this regard: “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your task,” he once said. “Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”
|Father Solanus Casey: A Timeline|
◗ Entered into the Franciscan novitiate: Jan. 14, 1897
◗ Ordained a priest: July 24, 1904
◗ Assigned to Sacred Heart in Yonkers, N.Y.: 1904-18
◗ Assigned to Our Lady of Sorrows in Manhattan, N.Y.: 1918-21
◗ Assigned to Our Lady of Angels, Harlem, N.Y.: 1921-24
◗ Assigned to St. Bonaventure’s in Detroit: 1924-45
◗ Assigned to St. Michael’s in Brooklyn, N.Y.: 1945-46
◗ Semi-retired, assigned to St. Felix Friary in Huntington, Ind.: 1946-56
◗ Returned to St. Bonaventure’s in Detroit for medical treatments: 1956-57
◗ Died: July 31, 1957
◗ Canonization cause initiated by the Archdiocese of Detroit: 1976
◗ Declared “venerable” by Pope St. John Paul II: July 11, 1995
◗ Miracle approved, paving the way for beatification: Jan. 19, 2017
As Blessed Solanus immersed himself completely in the Franciscan life of prayer and study, his academic difficulties would soon present more disappointments for him. His Capuchin superiors doubted he was intellectually capable to serve as a priest and asked him to make a statement of intention that he would be at peace remaining in the community even if not ordained.
Eventually a compromise was offered. The Capuchins agreed to ordain Blessed Solanus a priest, albeit a “simplex” one, meaning he could not publicly preach nor hear confessions. Although this must have been a source of disappointment and embarrassment for Blessed Solanus, he fully embraced obedience to his superiors and, moreover, resolved to be a holy priest. “What a privilege it is to serve God — even in the least capacity,” he once wrote. “We should be grateful for and love the vocation to which God has called us.” He was ordained on July 24, 1904, at age 33.
During his first 14 years as a priest, Blessed Solanus served at a parish in Yonkers, New York. At first put in charge of training the altar boys, Blessed Solanus quickly became known for his dedication and patience. While assigned in Yonkers, Blessed Solanus was first assigned to be the porter — the monastery’s doorkeeper — the ministry for which he is most well known and remembered.
From 1918 to 1924, Blessed Solanus served as porter at a couple of different monasteries around New York City. As such, he encountered the real problems and situations of ordinary people. This ministry would define the rest of his life and ministry.
Movement and notoriety
Blessed Solanus gained a reputation for an almost childlike gentleness, as a man full of compassion and sensitivity who accompanied those who came seeking his guidance about their problems, his prayerful intercession or even his assistance in their healing. Many miracles occurred through his prayers and blessings, earning his renown as a wonderworker. None of this would have been possible without an extraordinary closeness to God.
From 1924 to 1945, Blessed Solanus was porter at St. Bonaventure Friary in Detroit. He made himself available to whomever needed him — in person, or by phone or letter. He once wrote to one of his sisters: “I have plenty to keep me busy for at least 18 hours a day.” Many healings were attributed to his prayer and blessing. When the Great Depression hit, Blessed Solanus was instrumental in the founding of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which still tends to the needs of Detroit’s poor.
His superiors intended to relieve Blessed Solanus from his own reputation by moving him to Brooklyn in 1945. However, these plans were ignored by the people’s needs, which knew no distance. It was decided to then send him to the remote Capuchin novitiate in Huntington, Indiana, in 1946.
Casey spent a decade in the small Hoosier town. The friars who lived with him experienced the miraculous, as did so many came to know about Father Solanus. He once protected their orchard from destruction by frost with his blessing, and he likewise brought healing to the beekeeping friar who received threatening stings. Calm and relaxed around the apiary, he was enlisted to care for the bees and would soothe them with his harmonica. Although officially retired while in Indiana, Blessed Solanus needed assistance from friars to keep up with his correspondence. All the while, he grew in his sufferings, from arthritis and a skin disease that had plagued him for decades. Unable to find relief in Huntington or nearby Fort Wayne, Blessed Solanus returned quietly to Detroit in 1956.
His last days were spent hospitalized in severe pain and agony due to the aggravation of his skin condition. Those around him testified he never complained or asked for anything to take away the pain. Blessed Solanus wished to die “perfectly conscious, so that with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God,” he said. His last words, uttered with eyes wide open and arms stretched out, were “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.”
Blessed Solanus died in Detroit on July 31, 1957. It was the 53rd anniversary of his first Mass. More than 20,000 people lined up to view his body before burial. And thousands more have come to him seeking intercession ever since.