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The Solanus Casey Center: An Invitation to Grow
Text and photos By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Capuchin friars who run the center in Detroit see among their visitors a growing interest in Father Solanus Casey's beatification cause.

Q U I C K S C A N

Visiting the Solanus Casey Center
The Monastery Chapel and the Tomb of Father Solanus
Father Solanus Casey: A Biographical Sketch
Priest and Porter in New York and Detroit
Illness and Death of Father Solanus
The Beatification Cause of Father Solanus



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 beatification cause.

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 heaven”).

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.

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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 streetcar operator.

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 training.

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 daily Mass.

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 Harlem (1921-1924).

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 office.

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 other ways.”

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 Solanus Casey)

 

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 is growing.

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).


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