VENERABLE FATHER SOLANUS CASEY:
THE SAINTLY PRIEST WHO SERVED YONKERS
By Glenn Slaby
Father Solanus Casey’s last words exemplified his life: “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” Imagine, even for a priest, to vow an eternity of service: giving over your free will, forever; forsaking any sort of reward for a lifetime of service and vowing to continue to serve until the end of time. With his last breath, he offered himself up to God.
This November 25th marks the 144th year since the birth of this individual, a wonderworker, with thousands of documented cures, who suffered life-long side effects of a childhood illness. Father Casey worked at a variety of jobs as a young man and these ultimately led him to God’s chosen path, which included serving in Yonkers and New York City for twenty years.
Bernard Casey, the sixth of 16 children of a Wisconsin farm family, was inflicted with diphtheria at the age of eight. Diphtheria permanently damaged Father Casey’s vocal cords, leaving him with a wispy voice. His early life showed nothing spectacular that would mark Father Casey as a wonder worker. His independent life began at 17, when Casey left home to help support the farm. This phase included falling in love, (the relationship ended, due to objections from the girlfriend’s mother) and various jobs including work as a hospital orderly, a lumberjack, a guard in a Minnesota state prison, (where he helped convert one of the Younger Brothers from the Jesse James gang!) and a Trolley car operator in Superior, Wisconsin. While working as a trolley car operator, the young Bernard witnessed a brutal murder, which challenged him to rethink his life’s path and answer God’s calling. Is there such a thing as a coincidence? God doesn’t waste anyone’s life. Everyone has a purpose, a meaning; but our human condition does not allow us the privilege of immediately seeing God’s way.
This calling to the priesthood set Casey upon a difficult path, yet his life was a blessing for many. At the age of twenty-one, though his education was limited, he entered St. Francis High School Seminary in Milwaukee. The discipline was enjoyable, but the studies included German and Latin, which were difficult for him and as a result he did poorly, eventually being dismissed from the seminary.
Still desiring the life of a religious, Casey was accepted by three different orders but could not decide among them. After some discernment and a nine day Novena, which concluded on Dec. 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he heard the Blessed Mother telling him to go to Detroit, where the Capuchin order was based. He joined them on Christmas Eve, 1896 and on January 14, 1897 took the name of Solanus, after St. Francis Solano, the Spanish missionary to Peru.
July 21, 1898, Bernard Casey made a Simple Profession of Vows at St. Bonaventure Chapel, Detroit MI. and continued his studies at St. Francis Monastery, Milwaukee WI. Again, he experienced difficulties. His grades continued to be just “average” or “passing,” causing his superiors to question his suitability to continue religious studies. After writing a letter to them, resigning himself to God’s will and displaying great faith, Solanus was accepted and took final vows with his class on July 21, 1901. On December 8, 1903, Brother Solanus was ordained a Sub-deacon at St. Francis DeSales Seminary Chapel, Milwaukee WI.
In March 1904, Solanus was ordained a Deacon, at St. Francis Church, Milwaukee WI and was found worthy of ordination to the holy Priesthood on July 24, 1904, taking the holy vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Given his difficulty learning German and Latin, he was ordained a simplex priest, , who could preside at Mass, but would not have the authority for the public preaching of doctrinal sermons or hearing confessions. Never showing resentment or disappointment, the seeds of humility were planted at the age of 33. On July 31, 1904, Fr. Solanus Casey celebrated his first Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Appleton WI.
After his ordination, Father Casey served for 20 years in a succession of assignments in New York based Capuchin friaries. On August 4, 1904, Father Casey arrived at Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers, NY, his first assignment, which lasted fourteen years. Known as Father Solanus, he first served as sacristan, then director of the altar servers, then porter or “doorkeeper,” answering the bell at the monastery door – a job usually reserved for Brothers, but limitations became guideposts on his life’s path rather than road blocks.
Though his jobs were minor, Fr. Solanus took great pride in his responsibilities. He soon edified the parishioners by his prayerful example at Mass and through his great charity toward the sick, children, non-Catholics and the poor. His intense devotion to the Eucharist was fostered through many hours of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament. It was at the monastery door, though, where Fr. Solanus became a much-loved and personally sought-after counselor. Sick people asked for his blessing and something remarkable began to take place – cures, physical and spiritual which he quietly documented later on. Witnesses testified that Father had two gifts: the gift of healing and the gift of prophecy. The font, where he personally baptized over 300 people is located in a dedicated shrine at Sacred Heart.
July 1918, Father Solanus transferred to Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, 213 Stanton St., in New York City, serving there until Oct. 25, 1921, when he was transferred to our Our Lady of Angels in Harlem, NY, returning to Detroit on August 1, 1924. During his years at Our Lady of Angels in Harlem, Father Solanus gave rise to the work of the Seraphic Mass Association, (today called the Capuchin Mission Association), founded in Switzerland as a means to support Capuchin foreign missionaries. Those who enrolled their name with a small donation would be remembered in the prayers and Masses of the Capuchin Friars around the world. It wasn’t long before the community noticed that, when Fr. Solanus enrolled a person, more amazing results and even complete cures began to happen regularly.
“Man’s greatness lies in being faithful to the present moment.”
On November 8, 1923, Fr. Solanus wrote in a large ledger: “Fr. Provincial wishes notes to be made of special favors reported as through the Seraphic Mass Association.” He would eventually fill seven notebooks with over 6,000 entries, which ended in1956. These favors he never attributed to himself, but always to “the mercy and love of God for all His people.” In an entry dated March 28, 1924, he noted: “Patrick McCue enrolled for one year Feb. 9, by fellow motorman---reported today entirely cured of both gangrene and diabetes, and working every day. Doctors baffled!”
His apostolate to the sick and to the poor continued wherever Father Solanus was sent. Soon after being appointed in 1924 to the Capuchin Friary of St. Bonaventure in Detroit, Father Solanus was again appointed as a porter and sacristan, remaining in these positions for 20 years. Every Wednesday afternoon he conducted well-attended services for the sick. A co-worker estimates that on the average day, 150 to 200 people came to see him. Most of them came to receive his blessing; 40 to 50 came for consultation. Many people considered him instrumental in cures and other blessings received, though sometimes prayers were not always answered as expected. On one occasion, he had to tell the parents of a sick girl “sometimes God needs little angels.”
Fr. Solanus' service continued unabated, during the years of 1941-1945, even through well-earned semi-retirement, when he was sent to the Friary of St. Felix in Huntington, Indiana on April 25, 1946. There he spent his time in prayer and again, ministered to the sick and troubled, until his own infirmities brought him back to Detroit for special medical care in the spring of 1956.
In 1956, Brother Richard, of the Father Solanus Casey Guild, recalls growing up in Detroit and as a teenager, “being very much aware that many holy things and stories of wonders occurred around Father Casey’s life.” He recalls being a teenager and hearing a woman walking down the street share that she was “off to visit Father Solanus with something she wanted him to pray for.” Following a serious auto accident in 1956, Brother Richard’s brother was seriously ill and in danger of losing his leg. Brother Richard, then 15, accompanied his mother to seek Father Casey’s help and he told them, “not to worry.” Before leaving, he asked if he could “give them a blessing,” and he did so, putting his hand on Brother Richard’s shoulder. Brother Richard says his mother later told him, “Her heart sunk then, because she knew he was now destined for the monastery.” Brother Richard entered the Capuchin order eight years later and now serves the Father Solanus Guild, caretakers of his legacy.
“I looked on my whole life as giving, and I want to give until there is nothing left of me to give. So I prayed that, when I come to die, I might be perfectly conscious, so that with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God,” said Father Solanus, while gravely ill. At 11:00 the next morning, July 31, 1957, on the 53rd anniversary of his first Mass, Fr. Solanus, who had been in and out of consciousness, suddenly sat up, opened his eyes wide, stretched out his arms and said clearly: “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” He willingly gave his last breath to God. Casey died of Erysipelas*, a bacterial skin condition, on July 31, 1957, at St. John Hospital in Detroit. A commemorative plaque was placed outside the door of the hospital room in which he died. An estimated 20,000 people passed by his coffin prior to his burial in the cemetery at St. Bonaventure Monastery. At his death, all his worldly possessions fit into one trunk: some tattered clothing and few personal items, including a beat-up violin that he used to play occasionally.
Pope John Paul II declared Father Solanus the first American-born Venerable in 1995 due to his virtues; 60 years lived in a religious order and his 53 years as a priest. The late Father Benedict Groeschel, a former Capuchin, states that after Father Solanus Casey's death, a letter from Rome was discovered, apparently unopened, which granted him full priestly faculties to preach in public and hear confessions. Groeschel takes the position that Casey's healing apostolate would have suffered if this had been known.
“We must be faithful to the present moment or we will frustrate the plan of God for our lives.” – Father Solanus Casey
Editors Note: Father Solanus Casey’s cases of reported medical favors (answered prayers) are currently being studied by the Vatican. Upon approval of a documented favor, he will be raised to Blessed. Following another approved miracle, he will be declared a Saint. The Guardian is appreciative of the assistance of Mary Comfort and Brother Richard at the Father Solanus Guild for their help in researching this story and for making their copyrighted photos available to us. For further information about Father Solanus Casey, visit the website at: www.solanuscasey.org.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanus_Casey - cite_note-10
Glenn Slaby is married and has one son. A former account with an MBA, Glenn suffers from mental illness. He writes part-time and works at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison where he also receives therapy.