Blessed Solanus Casey
On November 18, 2017, more than 60,000 people filled Detroit’s Ford Field, a crowd normally reserved for professional football games or huge concerts. On that day, however, those attending were there to witness a special ceremony honoring a simple, humble man of God who had spent his life among the poor and the infirm.
The beatification of Father Solanus Casey bestowed upon him the title of “Blessed,” the final step before sainthood, which would make Father Solanus the first American-born Catholic male saint. Among those in Detroit to witness the rite were faithful from Huntington County, where Father Solanus had lived for 10 years late in his life, and where there were many accounts of his healing hand and inspiring counsel.
Huntington was just one ministry stop in the life of the man born Bernard Francis Casey on November 25, 1870, on a farm in Oak Grove, Wisconsin. Known as Barney, he was the sixth of 16 children born to a devout Catholic family of Irish immigrants.
When he was eight years old, a wave of diphtheria spread through the Casey family. Two of his siblings died. Barney survived, but his voice was permanently impaired. As a young man, he worked a series of odd jobs, including lumberjack, hospital orderly, and prison guard. It was while working as a street car operator that he witnessed the brutal murder of a woman by a drunken sailor. The event affected Casey deeply, and led to his call to become a priest.
He enrolled in seminary in Milwaukee, but with little formal education, he struggled with academics. He was advised that his best path to priesthood would be to join a religious order, where he could become a “simplex” priest with limited duties.
Casey heard a call that he should go to Detroit, where he joined the Capuchin order. It was there he was given the religious name “Solanus” after St. Francis Solanus, a 17th century Spanish Franciscan with whom he shared a love of the violin. He made first vows on July 21, 1898, and was ordained on July 24, 1904. He celebrated his first Mass a week later in Appleton, Wisc., with his family in attendance.
For the next 20 years, Father Solanus was assigned to parishes in New York City, where he was sought after as an inspirational speaker, and became known for his healings of the sick. By 1924, he was back in Detroit at St. Bonaventure monastery, where he helped found the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which was instrumental in serving the local population during the Depression. His main ministry was that of a simple porter, or doorkeeper, but thousands visited expressly to meet him.
His health began to fail, and in 1946 he was sent to the St. Felix Friary in Huntington to recover, but his reputation for lending comfort and a healing presence preceded him, and many pilgrims traveled to Huntington to see Father Solanus. He lived in a small room and slept on a simple straw mattress, and never turned away a visitor or anyone seeking his counsel. He always seemed to have just the right words of comfort for each individual who knocked on his door.
Among his most famous words were: “We must be faithful to the present moment or we will frustrate the plan of God for our lives.”
In 1956, Father Solanus returned to Detroit. In the last year of his life, he became close to a young brother Capuchin, Father Ron Rieder. The two shared a love of music. With Father Ron playing the organ at Mass, Father Solanus would stand next to him and sing, even though his injured wispy voice left him a terrible singer. Father Ron would sit and listen to Father Solanus play his cherished violin.
Later, Father Ron was assigned to SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Huntington, where he was a beloved religious leader himself over many years, inspired by his time with the dying priest. Father Solanus died July 31, 1957, with his final words “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” More than 20,000 people viewed his coffin prior to his funeral and burial.
The cause of his beatification began in 1976, even though many of his personal papers and records were lost following his death. An initial inquiry by the Catholic Church confirmed upon Father Solanus the title of “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II in 1995.
The next step toward sainthood involves the church’s approval of a miracle. The case for Father Solanus was confirmed in 2017, and approved by Pope Francis on May 4, 2017, leading to his elevation to the title “Blessed” at the beatification rite in November of that year at Ford Field in Detroit.
Father Rieder was instrumental in the creation of a memorial to his fellow Capuchin in Huntington. The St. Felix Friary, which had changed ownership in the time since Father Solanus’s residence, was purchased by Fort Wayne philanthropist John Tippmann in 2009. The aging building was renovated and reopened as the St. Felix Catholic Center.
The spartan room in the friary where Father Solanus lived for a decade was also restored, and remains a shrine for visitors and pilgrims. A statue of Father Solanus was added in 2018.
The Huntington community has remained connected with Father Solanus over the decades. A Huntington extension of the Father Solanus Guild was created in 2012. Another Huntington group, Praying with Father Solanus, holds monthly masses for the sick where parishioners may receive a blessing from an icon of Father Solanus. The group is also working to build a memorial Rosary garden on the St. Felix property.