PHOTO BY JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.
THIS MONTH marks the 50th anniversary of Venerable
Solanus Casey’s death. A simple Capuchin friar,
Father Solanus died in Detroit, Michigan, July 31,
1957, at the age of 87. Three days later, his funeral
drew such an overflow crowd that the monastery
chapel of St. Bonaventure near downtown Detroit
could not contain them all. The immense crowd spilled over onto the
sidewalks in front of the monastery.
The popularity of this humble friar, who had spent over 20 years
of his life as the monastery doorkeeper, has only grown larger in the
ensuing years. Here, as well as in New York and Indiana, Father
Solanus patiently listened to long lines of men and women who came
to his desk near the monastery door to tell him about their heartaches,
trials and medical afflictions.
Always showing care without discrimination, this holy Franciscan
priest offered spiritual advice, prayed for these people and blessed
them. Even during his lifetime, reports spread concerning the unusual
healings that many were experiencing.
Events scheduled this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of
Father Solanus’s death will no doubt stir up added interest in Detroit
and in the larger Catholic world regarding this popular friar and his
All the weekend Masses of July 28-29 will be joyful celebrations of
the anniversary. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit will be the presiding
celebrant for the final Mass at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, at
the Solanus Casey Center. A special novena for the beatification of
Father Solanus will also be part of the festivities. The novena begins
on July 23 and runs through July 31.
Visiting the Solanus Casey Center
The Solanus Casey Center opened to the public in December of
2002. It was built adjacent to the Capuchin Monastery of St. Bonaventure,
founded in the late 19th century. St. Bonaventure was where
Solanus arrived on Christmas Eve in 1896. He entered the Capuchin
novitiate on January 14, 1897, completing his novitiate on July 21,
1898, and taking his first vows.
Immediately, he left Detroit for Milwaukee to enter the Capuchin
seminary there. He would not return to Detroit for some 26 years, that
is, until he returned to St. Bonaventure as priest and popular porter
from 1924 to 1945. (For a brief overview of Father Solanus’s life, see
Father Solanus Casey: A Biographical Sketch.)
From the start, the Capuchin friars have reminded visitors who
come to the center that it is not simply a shrine to Father Solanus.
It is also a pilgrimage site—a pilgrimage that calls visitors to inner conversion
and to a greater love for the poor and suffering, just as Father
Solanus experienced himself.
The Creation Garden. Pilgrims begin at the
Creation Garden—a quiet and welcoming
oasis from the busy world. It lies just inside the
center’s gates, through which visitors enter
from the sidewalk running alongside the center
and front of the monastery. This outdoor
garden is the first of a series of contemplative
spaces that ultimately lead the pilgrim to the
tomb of Father Solanus.
The Creation Garden invites pilgrims, in a
broad, ecumenical manner, to the God of creation.
Most believers, after all, are united by a
common belief in the God who made heaven
and earth, and who is worthy of all praise.
The central focus of the garden is the “Canticle
of the Creatures,” the famous hymn of
St. Francis of Assisi. In St. Francis’ view, all creatures
are brothers and sisters. And hence in his
“Canticle of the Creatures,” St. Francis praises
God through “Brother Sun” and “Sister
Moon,” through “Brother Fire” and “Sister
Water,” through “Brother Wind” and “Our Sister
Mother Earth”—to name a few—and even
through “Sister Death.”
To further accent the ecumenical and interfaith
aspects of the Creation Garden, the Franciscan
planners of the center decided that
the seven sculptural pieces representing the
various creatures (sun, moon, air, water, etc.)
would be the work of artists representing different
cultures and faith traditions.
The Beatitudes. Pilgrims next enter through
the “Christ Doors” into the world of Christianity,
represented by the Beatitudes—the eight
core teachings of Jesus. An ecumenical note
is struck here as well, in that women and
men of other cultures (Asia, Africa, Latin
America and North America) and of other
Christian denominations are represented.
Eight life-size, bronzed figures of men and
women of recent history exemplify the eight
Beatitudes. Take Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for
example, or Dorothy Day, who served the
poor and the homeless of New York (“Blessed
are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of
God”); or consider someone like the Rev.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked for peace, justice and nonviolence (“Blessed are the peacemakers,
they will be called children of God”); or those killed “for justice’
sake,” like Archbishop Oscar Romero or U.S. laywoman
Jean Donovan in El Salvador (“Blessed are those who suffer
persecution for justice’ sake; theirs is the reign of
Pilgrims passing through the center can interact with
these inspiring figures and experience the invitation to
grow in light of the Beatitudes.
Replica of Capuchins’ first church. Pilgrims move next to
what they call the “Ghosted Church,” that is, to the symbolic
outline of the first church the Detroit Capuchins built
on this location in 1883. It’s also the symbolic beginning of
the journey the Capuchins (including Father Solanus) have
taken with the people of Detroit over the years.
Journeying with Solanus. At this point, pilgrims may be
invited into the auditorium to learn about the word of God
(with the aid of a short film, Ask, Seek, Knock: The Solanus Casey
Center) as it was lived by Father Solanus. Otherwise they go
directly into the Gallery, which is focused on the life of
Father Solanus. With the help of family photos, for example,
and items on display, they are now accompanied by Solanus
Casey, as it were, to learn how he walked his journey.
No doubt, the central feature of the Gallery is the simple
wooden desk that Solanus used at St. Bonaventure—at which
he counseled thousands of people and prayed for them.
Another feature in the Gallery is a
glass-encased display containing a
frayed habit once worn by Solanus,
along with the friar’s famous violin and
other personal items. Of the violin,
Father Daniel Fox, O.F.M.Cap., director
of the center, observes: “You get a
glimpse of Solanus’s simplicity but also
his delightful humanity if you look at
the violin. He loved music! I’m told he
was not a virtuoso, but we don’t have
to be virtuosos to love music. Solanus
used to play the violin to the sick on
the phone. What a beautiful thing!
Whether he was good or not [on the
violin], he gave someone joy.”
The Hall of Saints and Works of
Mercy. The pilgrims—now nearing the
tomb of Solanus—leave the main concourse
and come upon a wall composed
of a series of floor-to-ceiling glass panels
etched with figures of saints important
in the life of Father Solanus. A
small outdoor garden nearby adds a
contemplative feel to this area. The
saints include St. Joseph (patron of the
Detroit province), St. Martin de Porres
(a Dominican brother of black ancestry
in Lima, Peru, who was also a famous
doorkeeper and friend of the poor), St.
Francis of Assisi and St. Elizabeth of
Hungary (patron of Secular Franciscans).
Along the wall on the other side of the Hall of Saints are images on tile
representing the seven corporal and
spiritual works of mercy. The friars
believe that the works of mercy formed
the heart of Solanus’s mission. Clearly,
caring for the poor, the hungry and
the sick and giving spiritual advice were
what Father Solanus was all about.
The Monastery Chapel and the Tomb of Father Solanus
At this point we are very close to both
the chapel and tomb of Solanus. First,
we briefly visit the monastery chapel,
where Solanus himself often prayed,
asking God fervently that the burdens
of those who sought his advice would
be lifted. In this area also, today’s pilgrims
are offered opportunities to find
inner healing through counseling or
the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Healing services have been held regularly
in the monastery chapel for
many decades and are still very popular
today. Held at 2 p.m. each Wednesday,
as well as on the fourth Sunday of
every month, the services generally
begin with prayers of thanksgiving and
praise, followed by the voicing of intercessions.
People receive a blessing with
a relic of the true cross and, as they
leave, are anointed with oil to help
them be courageous in living out their
Christian calling as ministers of mercy.
When the pilgrims move out of the
chapel, they pass through gates leading
to the tomb of Father Solanus. These
gates, according to Michael Crosby,
O.F.M.Cap., author of Solanus Casey:
The Official Account of a Virtuous American
Life, represent the gates into the
heavenly Jerusalem. This, he says, is
where “every tear will be wiped away
and God will make all things new.”
Here the pilgrims, if they wish, can
drop to their knees on either side of the
wooden monument, which sits directly
over the place where Solanus’s remains
are interred below the stone floor. They
may ask Father Solanus to intercede
for their own healing and that of their
loved ones. People often write their
petitions on small pieces of paper and
place them on top of the tomb.
Along with thousands of people in
Detroit and around the world, Father
Solanus’s Capuchin confreres believe
that this simple friar was truly a saint.
They see the Solanus Casey Center as a
place where they can honor the ministry
and memory of their Capuchin
brother who served there. And they
are also more than willing to share this
gift with the world.
For information on the Father
Solanus Guild, visit www.solanuscasey.org. For information on the
Father Solanus Center, visit www.solanuscenter.org. The address and
phone number for both Guild (ext.
169) and Center (ext. 130) are: 1780
Mt. Elliott Ave., Detroit, MI 48207;
telephone (313) 579-2100.
Father Solanus Casey: A Biographical Sketch
BERNARD CASEY was born
in 1870 to Irish immigrant
parents who lived on a
farm in Wisconsin near
the town of Prescott on
the Mississippi River. His family and
friends called him “Barney.” He had
nine brothers and six sisters. Having
received a very religious upbringing,
Barney more than once thought about
dedicating his life to God. He
worked on the farm for several
years before trying out other jobs
such as part-time prison guard and
In 1892, Barney entered St. Francis
(archdiocesan) Seminary in Milwaukee.
Finding the studies very
difficult, he was told he might be
better off seeking a vocation with a
religious order. In 1896, he received
a letter of acceptance from the
Capuchin Franciscan Friars at St.
Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit,
Michigan. He arrived there on
Christmas Eve of that year.
There, on January 14, 1897, he
received the Franciscan habit and
the name Solanus (after St. Francis
Solano, a violin-toting Spanish
Franciscan missionary who died in
Peru in 1610) and became a Capuchin
novice. He completed his
novitiate at St. Bonaventure on July
21, 1898, and professed his simple
vows. Then he departed immediately
for St. Francis Monastery in
Milwaukee to begin his seminary
Studying for the priesthood with
the Capuchins was again a real
struggle, but he managed to be
ordained in 1904 as a simplex priest.
This meant that Father Solanus
could celebrate Mass, but not hear confessions
or give doctrinal sermons.
Priest and Porter in New York and Detroit
Father Solanus’s first assignment was to
a Capuchin parish (Sacred Heart) in
Yonkers, New York (1904-1918). His
main tasks were those of a sacristan
and porter (doorkeeper). But Solanus
found these tasks very much to his
liking—along with his celebration of
Ironically, Solanus’s role as monastery
porter brought him much closer
to the everyday people and their spiritual
needs than if he were their confessor.
Both men and women flocked to
this kind, holy friar, revealed to him
their inmost trials and heartaches and
sought his spiritual advice. Already,
cures began to be attributed to his
prayers and blessings.
In similar style, Solanus served two
other parishes in New York: Our Lady
of Sorrows in Lower Manhattan (1918-1921) and Our Lady of Angels in
Solanus returned to Detroit and St.
Bonaventure Monastery in 1924 and
labored there zealously until 1945. He
was solicitous in serving the poor and
in helping out at the nearby soup
kitchen, which friars and volunteers
still run. The people in Detroit also discovered
that they had a saintly friar
among them. And stories of healings
resulting from the prayers of Father
Solanus grew more numerous.
Illness and Death of Father Solanus
Father Solanus’s tireless efforts on behalf
of thousands who sought his help in
Detroit continued for some 21 years.
In time, however, Solanus’s health
began to wear down. Leo Wollenweber,
O.F.M.Cap., now 89, first met
Father Solanus at St. Bonaventure
in 1938. Leo would serve Mass for
Father Solanus, and he later assisted
him for several years in the monastery
In his book, Meet Solanus Casey:
Spiritual Counselor and Wonderworker (Servant Books), Brother Leo describes
Solanus’s declining health:
“By the year 1945, the long hours
and steady work at the [porter’s]
office began to take their toll on
Solanus’s health. He became subject
to colds and even influenza during
the winter. A couple times he
had to be hospitalized with pneumonia.”
In 1946, as Brother Leo reports,
Solanus was transferred to the
Capuchin friary of St. Felix in
Huntington, Indiana, for semiretirement.
His health problems
eventually grew more severe; in
January 1956, Solanus was brought
back to Detroit for medical treatment
and was transferred to St.
Bonaventure in May. Brother Leo
notes that in April of 1957 he (Leo)
had the “good fortune to be stationed
again in Detroit….I was
happy to be with Solanus again,
happy to serve him at Mass and in
In July of 1957, Father Solanus was
taken to St. John’s Hospital in Detroit.
Though suffering from a very distressing
skin condition, no one ever heard
Solanus complain. On the morning of
July 31, as an orderly and a nurse
attended him, he seemed to whisper
something they could not understand.
“Suddenly, he sat up, stretched out his
arms and in a clear voice said, ‘I give my
soul to Jesus Christ!’ These were his
last words.” (From Brother Leo’s Meet
The Beatification Cause of Father Solanus
WITHIN A FEW YEARS after Father Solanus’s death,
hundreds of ordinary people began calling for his canonization.
Many of these voices belonged to members
of the Father Solanus Guild, formed in 1960 in
collaboration with the Capuchins in Detroit. Soon the
Capuchin Friars officially got behind Solanus’s cause for beatification.
A milestone was reached on July 11, 1995: Pope John Paul II promulgated
the decree recognizing the “heroic virtue” of Solanus Casey and
bestowed on him the title of Venerable. With this proclamation, Father
Solanus became the first U.S.-born male to be declared Venerable.
Interest in Venerable Solanus Casey’s beatification
continues to grow. Earlier this year,
two Detroit Capuchins closely involved with
Solanus’s cause sat down with St. Anthony
Messenger and talked about new developments.
The friars are Brother Leo Wollenweber,
the vice postulator of the cause since
1974, and Brother Richard Merling, director
of the Father Solanus Guild since 1973.
Miracle under investigation. Both friars
have offices at the Solanus Casey Center in
Detroit. Brother Leo relates that the current
miracle being investigated by Rome
(required for beatification) is “quite promising.” The miracle concerns
a young man whose friends brought him to the tomb of Father Solanus
last fall (2006). Along with his friends, the young man prayed for a healing
through Father Solanus’s intercession.
“After praying there,” asserts Brother Leo, “the young man saw his
doctor again, and there was a remarkable change in his condition....We’ve
already sent a report to the postulator in Rome. The prospects look good
but we have no way of anticipating their decision.”
Signs of growing interest. There are other signs that the cause of
Father Solanus is gaining in popularity, say the two friars. For one
thing, the number of people visiting the Solanus Casey Center and tomb
Television programs have also stoked interest. When the television
documentary Solanus Casey: Priest, Porter and Prophet was aired on the
Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), phone calls came in from
Europe, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. A more recent
documentary, The Healing Prophet: Father Solanus Casey, has been aired
in the Detroit area, bringing additional responses into the center as well
as prayers for healing. EWTN is planning a premiere showing of The Healing
Prophet this month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Solanus’s
death, according to Audrey Geyer, one of the video’s producers.
For those wondering whether Rome might accept a miracle by the time
of the 50th anniversary of Solanus’s death, July 31, 2007—or whether
other good news about Solanus’s beatification could be announced—no
one seems to know. According to the two friars, “It’s anybody’s guess!”
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication
and editor of Catholic Update. He is also author of
an Internet column, Friar Jack’s E-spirations, which
can be accessed at www.friarjack.org. Father
Jack’s most recent book is Anthony of Padua: Saint
of the People (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).