Modern Day Saint

Father Solanus Casey
1875 - 1957


Bernard Casey was born in a three-room log cabin near Superior, Wisconsin, on November 25, 1875. He grew up on a farm in a very large Catholic family. He was the oldest of 16 children. As a young boy, though he was physically weak as a result of diphtheria, he was strong spiritually. He prayed and helped his family in the face of crop failure and poverty. At an early age, Barney decided he wanted to devote his life to God as a priest. He'd already been a lumberjack, a prison guard, and a streetcar motorman. One day while driving the streetcar through a tough section of Superior, he came upon a drunken sailor stabbing a young woman. "The scene remained with him," wrote his biographer, James P. Derum. "To him the brutal stabbing and the sailor's hysterical cursing symbolized the world's sin and hate and man-made misery.

In 1892, Bernard was admitted to a German seminary. All the classes were taught in German, a language Barney could not understand. As a result, he did poorly in his classes and was eventually dismissed from the seminary.

With mixed feelings and uncertainty, Barney entered a Capuchin seminary in 1896 where he adopted the name of Solanus.

The superiors at the seminary had doubts about ordaining brother Solanus as a priest due to his poor performance in his Latin and German courses. Solanus accepted the judgment of his superiors, believing that in humbling himself, the victory would be won. At the age of 33, Father Solanus was ordained as a simplex priest, meaning he could not hear confessions or preach homilies. He assumed the tasks usually performed by brothers.

During his priesthood, Father Solanus had several assignments which required him to move. Even into his seventies, he continued to uproot himself; submitting to his superiors. He spent some time in New York -- in Yonkers and Harlem. Here began the series of inexplicable events linked to him for the next 36 years.

Father Solanus began promoting a prayer group, the Seraphic Mass Association, in which all members had access to the prayers of the entire group. He offered to help those in distress to fill out the prayer group's application card and while doing so, listened to their problems. Unexpectedly quick recoveries and remarkable solutions to their problems shocked and delighted the petitioners, and the word spread. Father Solanus suddenly found himself very busy, and his superior, Father Provincial Benno Aichinger, directed him to keep a record of these "special favors."

The long list of favors granted included one to the Chevrolet motor company. In 1925 the firm was near bankruptcy when an auto worker, John McKenna, who feared losing his job enrolled Chevrolet into the Seraphic Mass Association for 50 cents. Two nights later the company got an order for 45,000 machines.

During the Great Depression, the number of daily patrons of the monastery's soup kitchen tripled, and Father Solanus joined the expanded efforts. Arthur Rutledge came to Solanus with a stomach tumor. Solanus told him to go back to the doctor and check again, then come and help in the soup kitchen. The doctor found the tumor was gone, and the kitchen had a new volunteer.

Suffering from overwork, Solanus was sent to Brooklyn in 1945 and later to a farm area in Huntington, Indiana, where he received about 200 letters a day. He tried to answer the letters, but in his 80s and suffering with arthritis, he used a rubber signature stamp which the friars had made for him.

Vivian M. Baulch writes, “The thin, bald ascetic with horn-rimmed spectacles and a flowing gray beard spent 23 years at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit. He was a man of rare holiness. A mystic! He saw...that the only cure for mankind's crime and wretchedness was the love that can be learned only from and through Him who died to show men what love is." Father Solanus believed that one must first seek and follow Jesus, and in following in Jesus' footsteps, one must accept suffering as a blessing and a gift.

During his years at St. Bonaventure, he filled seven notebooks with more than 6,000 requests for help from petitioners. And for some 700 of these, he recorded reported cures from cancer, leukemia, tuberculosis, diphtheria, arthritis, blindness, and other maladies. These brief postscripts also report conversions of fallen-away churchgoers and favorable resolutions of domestic and business problems.    

Again and again, in his letters he repeated his life's message -- that confidence in God is the very soul of prayer and becomes the condition for supernatural intervention in our lives. "God condescends to use our powers if we don't spoil his plans by ours," he frequently wrote.

In January 1956 he was diagnosed with skin cancer, and his superiors decided to send him back to Detroit to be near expert medical care. His contact with petitioners was restricted.

A novice recalled that on the last Christmas evening before the death of Father Solanus, he overheard the friar playing his violin alone in the chapel, singing Christmas carols to the Christ Child.

Father Solanus Casey died in Detroit July 31, 1957, on the 53rd anniversary of his first Mass. After 86 years on this earth, his earthly belongings were a small crucifix, an old pair of sandals, several religious pictures, a wooden statue of St. Anthony, some dog-eared religious books, a knot of heavily darned socks and a framed, 40-year-old picture of his family.

But he left a rich legacy -- a long list of curious "favors" to an equally long list of devoted believers.

By 1964, the Seraphic Mass Association had grown to about 3,500 members nationally. They wanted some action toward his canonization. In 1974, Brother Leo Wollenweber started gathering the evidence and filled two big, gray filing cabinets.

TV programs told of Father Solanus. In 1994, "Unsolved Mysteries" aired a show about his "mysteries." Finally, after 30 years, Pope John Paul II approved the reading of the decree declaring the heroic virtues of Fr. Casey. This gives him the title "Venerable," the first of three steps in the rigorous process toward canonization. If he becomes sainted, he will be the first American-born man thus honored. Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized in 1976.                           

    Jim Fritz

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