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God’s holy doorman: Fr Solanus Casey 1870-1957

30 November, 1999

Serving as a doorman was the way Fr Solanus Casey used to become holy. He would listen to the story of everyas if he had all the time in the world….” Fr John Murray PP tells his story. It was late at night and the monastery was asleep. Suddenly the bell rang and thirty residents […]

Serving as a doorman was the way Fr Solanus Casey used to become holy. He would listen to the story of everyas if he had all the time in the world….” Fr John Murray PP tells his story.

It was late at night and the monastery was asleep. Suddenly the bell rang and thirty residents were awakened from their slumbers. One man rose sooner than the rest to see who could possibly need help at that unearthly hour. Solanus Casey was the porter, the doorman, of St. Bonaventure’s and everyone knew him.

Bernard ‘Barney’ Casey was born in Wisconsin to Irish immigrant farmers in the year 1870. He was the sixth of sixteen children. Early on, an epidemic claimed the lives of two of his siblings and permanently damaged his own voice, leaving it soft and wispy.

Turning point
His early working life saw him as a lumberjack, a prison guard and a streetcar motorman. Indeed it was while serving in that last capacity that he saw a drunken sailor stabbing a young woman. His biographer, James Derum, wrote ‘to him the brutal stabbing and the sailor’s cursing symbolized the world’s sin and man-made misery. For him the only cure for mankind’s wretchedness was the love that can be learned only from and through Him who died to show men what love is.’

As a result of that experience he decided to become a priest but his initial attempts were not successful. Bernard struggled with his studies and although he only entered seminary in his mid-twenties, he was dismissed after one year. Latin and German, the languages of the lectures, just proved too difficult.

Capuchin friary
However Barney retained a deep desire to be a priest and while praying at Mass one day, he felt within the words ‘go to Detroit’. There, on Christmas Eve 1896, he entered the monastery of St. Bonaventure, a Capuchin friary. Again he struggled with the academic side but his moral qualities were so outstanding that his superiors allowed ordination on 24 July 1904. But there were to be limitations on his ministry: he was allowed to be a simplex priest; he could not preach formal sermons nor hear confession. The Lord would use him powerfully nevertheless.

Initially he was appointed to a friary in the state of New York (Yonkers) where he served primarily as porter and receptionist. Later he spent twenty-one years in Detroit in the same capacity. Word of his compassion quickly spread, along with reports of miracles.

Recorded cases
Often people would come back to the monastery and thank Solanus  (the religious name he took) for healing them. ‘No, it is your faith which has healed you,’ he would say.

By 1923 his provincial asked him to keep a record of any special cases or reported healings. By the end of his life he had filled seven notebooks! These mentioned hundreds of recorded cures from cancer, arthritis, blindness and other illnesses. There were also countless incidences of people coming back to the practice of their faith and the resolution of many family and domestic situations.

Other brothers could not help but notice. At the beginning, the bell at the monastery rang a few times but very soon, more than a hundred visitors a day came. ‘People might wait an hour or more to talk to him but nobody got impatient. And he would never hurry anybody. He would listen to your story as if he had all the time in the world, and he would try to advise you or comfort you, and then he would usually give a blessing. When the people got home they would discover whoever had been sick was cured,’ one brother said.

Extraordinary and ordinary
Other brothers would share how people would wait for Solanus for even just one moment with him. ‘It was only after his death that we realized how much he had done and how close he was to God.’

Yet it was his simple down-to-earth manner which endeared him to many. He loved to tell and hear jokes; he loved hot dogs smothered in onions; he loved an occasional beer in the local bar and he loved to play the violin though that did not always endear him to the others!

One friar said, ‘When we saw him approaching we would often busy ourselves with other things to avoid the one-man-show! Then Solanus would take the violin into the chapel and play to the Lord Himself.’

Confidence in God
Indeed this self-effacing attitude to life could be seen in some of the accounts which others wrote about his work. One of his own brothers – also a priest – wrote once to Solanus complaining about a priest-chaplain in the hospital to which ill-health had consigned him.

Solanus replied, ‘God could have established his Church under supervision of angels that have no faults or weaknesses, but who can doubt that as it stands today, consisting of, and under the supervision of, poor sinners successors to the poor fishermen of Galilee – the Church is a more outstanding miracle than any other way.’

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 God’s intervention in our lives. ‘God condescends to use our powers if we don’t spoil His plans by ours.’

After twenty-one years in Detroit, his second assignment, Solanus returned to New York and then to the novitiate in Indiana. No doubt his superiors hoped his transfer would provide some rest to his exhausting schedule – and that his holiness might rub off on the new novices to the order. However a new apostolate beckoned as people who could not access Indiana would write to him instead. Soon about 300 letters a day poured into the monastery there. All received an answer.

The last breath
Solanus died in 1957. His illness had been short; a skin infection had set in and he knew he was not getting better. The day before he died he confided in his superior that he wanted to be conscious when death came so that ‘with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God’.

On the morning of his last day he attempted to say something to a sister at the bedside but his voice was already weak. ‘Suddenly he sat straight up in the bed and with his last breath he said in a clear voice, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ”.’

In 1995 Pope John Paul declared Solanus to be Venerable, which is the first step on the road to sainthood. He is the first American-born man to achieve this stage. His remains had been brought in 1987 back to Detroit and today his shrine at St. Bonaventure’s monastery is visited even more than when he was alive.


This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits. 

 

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