Sixty years after his death, Capuchin Father Solanus Casey will move a step closer to canonization as Pope Francis announced May 4 that the beloved friar, who earlier had been named venerable, met the requirements for beatification and will be named “blessed”—the second U.S.-born man to achieve such a designation.
While serving at Sacred Heart parish and friary in Yonkers from 1904 to 1918, Father Solanus was assigned to be a friary porter, or doorkeeper, a ministry he would carry out for the rest of his life.
He would go on to serve at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem and Our Lady of Sorrows in Lower Manhattan. He later served at St. Michael’s in Brooklyn.
Capuchin Father Thomas Franks, the pastor of St. John the Baptist and Holy Cross parish in Manhattan, said Father Solanus lived “a spirituality of encounter,” much like Pope Francis is advocating today.
“So many people met him as a porter, when they came to the door. He had a compassionate ear and a willingness to help,” Father Franks told CNY this week. Those traits exhibited by Father Solanus remain a “key part of our ministry today as Christians and Capuchins.”
“Solanus was living in the moment and brought a Christ-like light to those who needed it,” the friar said.
Father Franks is the representative of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Mary to the advisory board of the Solanus Casey Center at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, where the friar is interred.
When Father Solanus’ impending beatification was announced at weekend Masses, it was greeted by applause from parishioners. A statue of the friar stands at the entrance of St. John the Baptist Church on West 31st Street. There are guilds promoting the canonization of Father Solanus at St. John the Baptist and Sacred Heart.
A spirit of gratitude was another deeply developed aspect of Father Solanus’ spirituality. “It puts you in a different orientation in your own life and to those you meet,” Father Franks said.
Although Father Solanus was born on a farm in Oak Grove, Wis., he spent most of his adult life and ministry in Detroit, caring for sick, poor and downtrodden people and lending a listening ear and caring heart to the thousands who came to him for counsel, wisdom and aid.
Among the hundreds, if not thousands, of healings attributed to Father Solanus during and after his lifetime, Pope Francis recognized the authenticity of a miracle necessary for the friar to be elevated from venerable to blessed after a review by the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes was completed earlier this year.
“The beatification of Father Solanus Casey is an incomparable grace for the Church in the Archdiocese of Detroit and for the whole community of Southeast Michigan,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in a statement.
“He is an inspiration to all us Catholics—and to all—of the power of grace to transform one’s life.”
The miracle needed to raise Father Solanus to blessed involved a woman with an incurable genetic skin disease. The woman was visiting friends in Detroit and stopped at Father Solanus’ tomb to pray for others’ intentions. After her prayers, she felt the strong urging to ask for the friar’s intercession for herself, too, and received an instant and visible healing.
The miraculous nature of her cure was verified by doctors in her home country, in Detroit and in Rome, all of whom confirmed there was no scientific explanation.
Father Solanus himself died of a skin disease in 1957.
The beatification, which will take place during a Mass in Detroit later this year, is the final step before sainthood. A declaration of sainthood requires a second miracle attributed to Father Solanus’ intercession.
Capuchin Father Michael Sullivan, provincial minister of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph in Detroit, said the friars were elated with the news. “Known for his compassion and simplicity, he drew many thousands to God. Rather than call attention to himself, he taught people to thank God for his blessings. We are overjoyed at the news that Father Solanus’ holiness is recognized by the Holy Father.”
Born Bernard Francis Casey, he was the sixth of 16 children to Irish immigrants Bernard James Casey and Ellen Elizabeth Murphy. As a young man, he worked as a logger, a hospital orderly, a streetcar operator and a prison guard before entering the Capuchins at age 26.
He enrolled at St. Francis High School Seminary near Milwaukee in 1891, but because of academic limitations, he was advised to consider joining a religious order instead.
After reflecting before a statue of Mary, he felt the urging to “go to Detroit” and heeded this advice, joining the Capuchin order in 1897. He was given the religious name Solanus.
Although he continued to struggle academically, Father Solanus was at last ordained in 1904 by Milwaukee Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer as a “simplex priest,” meaning he could celebrate Mass but could not preach doctrinal sermons or hear confessions.
After serving for two decades in friaries and churches in New York, Father Solanus was transferred back to Detroit in 1924, where he began working as the porter of St. Bonaventure Monastery.
It was in that role—which eventually became the title of a 1968 biography written by James Patrick Derum, “The Porter of St. Bonaventure’s”—that Father Solanus cemented his reputation for holiness and compassion. He conducted well-attended services for the sick and became known for his gentle, wise counsel and genuine concern for those who sought his help. He helped establish the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929 to feed hungry people during the Great Depression, a work that continues in Detroit today.
By the time of his death in 1957, devotion to Father Solanus had grown to the point that more than 8,000 people attended his Funeral Mass, including those who traveled from afar to hear his guidance and keep his memory.
“Over the years the fame of Father Solanus has extended around the world, and now has devotees in 27 countries,” said Capuchin Friar Larry Webber, who, with Capuchin Brother Richard Merling, is a vice postulator for Father Casey’s beatification and canonization cause. “Thousands of favors attributed to the intercession of Venerable Solanus have been reported to the office of the cause for sainthood of Father Solanus.”
Officials began collecting and organizing material for Father Solanus’ cause in 1976, and by 1983, an official archdiocesan investigation was opened into the life and virtues of the priest. During that phase, 53 witnesses gave sworn testimony to his heroic virtues, and the next year their testimonies were sent to the Vatican.
As part of the process, Father Solanus’ tomb was opened July 8, 1987, and his remains were moved to their current resting place inside the north transept of St. Bonaventure’s Chapel.
Led by Capuchin Brother Leo Wollenwebber, a three-volume “position” was presented to the Vatican congregation, which affirmed Father Solanus’ heroic virtues in 1995. On July 11, 1995, Father Solanus was named “venerable” by St. John Paul II, allowing for public devotion and advancing the cause for beatification.
On Sept. 22, 2016, a panel of medical experts approved a miraculous healing attributed to Father Solanus. A panel of theological advisers concurred Jan. 19, paving the way for the Vatican congregation to recommend beatification to Pope Francis.—CNS