“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”
Compared to many of the other shrines and sacred sites in this guide, the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit reflects Franciscan simplicity. This site, the last resting place of a venerable man — in both saintly title and disposition — mirrors his humility and simplicity, and is a wonderful place to learn about a humble Capuchin friar’s trust in God and compassion for others that has put him on the path to sainthood.
In a word, it’s perfect.
What draws pilgrims to this site is the tomb of the man who healed thousands during his life. Everything else tells his story. The gift shop is stocked with useful and informative books and sacramentals. The museum illustrates Venerable Solanus Casey’s quiet life, while the auditorium allows visitors to have discussions or watch audio-visual programs about him. The Hall of Saints — a half-moon-shaped hallway of glass — has etchings of the saints who were important in his life. The St. Bonaventure Monastery Chapel provides a place where pilgrims can pray and where the Blessing of the Sick occurs every week.
Bernard Francis Casey was born on a farm in Wisconsin on Nov. 25, 1870. The sixth of 16 children his Irish immigrant parents were blessed with, Barney (as he was known) was blessed with a childhood full of love and faith. He began considering the priesthood around the age of 13, although he did once propose to a girl whose mother whisked her away. Clearly God had other plans for him.
God’s plans, you see, played heavily in Barney’s life.
At 21, Barney entered the diocesan seminary, and while he loved the discipline of his studies, the fact that his classes were taught in German and Latin — he wasn’t proficient in either language — made it difficult for him to learn. His superiors told him that he would be better off in a religious order and sent him on his way.
That summer Barney considered the welcome letters he’d received from the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Capuchins. On the last day of his novena to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, he heard the Blessed Mother say to him, “Go to Detroit.” There the Capuchins were headquartered, and there Barney went.
At St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, he was given the name Friar Francis Solanus, going by Solanus because another friar was known as Francis. Unfortunately, Solanus’ lessons at St. Bonaventure’s were also in German. Eventually his superiors decided that he could only become a “simplex priest,” meaning that while he could celebrate Mass, he could not hear confessions or preach doctrinal sermons. Although Solanus must have been disappointed, he merely said that he would accept whatever God willed for him.
After his ordination, Father Solanus was sent to Yonkers, where the pastor had no idea what to do with him. He gave him the job of porter, or doorkeeper. The task was clearly below Solanus, but he took great pride in being the best doorkeeper around. And he was. The people of Yonkers grew to love Solanus, and many visitors came just to see him, including the sick, who sought him for his blessings. More and more of them came once these blessings became remarkable cures.
When he was transferred to Manhattan, he found himself not assigned to the door, which gave him time to work on his own shortcomings: as the SolanusCasey.org website says, “[Father] Solanus had time to consider conversion, that is, conversion from the control of his shortcomings: sensitivity to criticism; an ego that liked to be stroked; the ability to rationalize his negative tendencies; subtle forms of pride; and insensitivity to the needs of the poor.” He wrote notes to himself, resolutions, to help him grow in holiness. During this time, he grew in compassion and patience. How did he do it? He saw his own anxieties in others, and because he understood them, he had compassion for them.
Another extraordinary characteristic of Father Solanus was his attitude of gratitude and trust in God. He would often thank God ahead of time, and he believed that “confidence is courage divinely reinforced.” He told people to believe, pray with faith, and make a promise in thanksgiving — before prayers were answered. His trust in God was legendary, and it often resulted in answered prayer.
After 20 years in Yonkers, Harlem, and New York City, where he earned a reputation as a holy man, followed by 10 years in Indiana, Father Solanus was called back to St. Bonaventure’s in Detroit, where he would conduct blessing of the sick services and become known for his kindheartedness and miraculous results. Father Solanus never took credit whenever someone was healed — he always gave thanks to God who he knew worked through him. “I have two loves,” he said, “the sick and the poor.” Whenever he encouraged people to sign up for theSeraphic Mass Association, the other priests noticed that prayers were answered miraculously. At the direction of his superiors, Father Solanus began keeping track of the favors reported through this association. In 33 years, he filled seven notebooks with more than 6,000 entries.
In 1946 Father Solanus semiretired to St. Felix Friary in Huntington, Indiana, and it was here where a young novice named Benedict Groeschel first met him. “When I was a teenager, I prayed often that I would know someone who would become a saint of the Church,” Father Groeschel later said, according to Solanus Casey: The Story of Father Solanus (Our Sunday Visitor, revised edition, 2007). “To this day, having known a few such great people, I still think that [Father] Solanus was the saintliest person I ever knew.”
Father Solanus lived to be 86, and as he lay on his deathbed back in Detroit, he said, “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.” The next morning, on the 53rd anniversary of his first Mass, Father Solanus opened his eyes wide and said, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” Then he died.
It’s not inconceivable that, as a young man, Barney Casey had hopes and wishes for his life. It’s entirely likely that being a doorkeeper and a partial priest weren’t among his hopes and dreams. Despite his own plans and hopes, he made the conscious decision to trust in God no matter what and to give thanks for whatever God gave him, even before he received it. His trust, humility, and self-emptying opened the door for God to fill him with something miraculous. That’s why pilgrims come to this pilgrimage site. Will you be next?
For more information about the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit, visit SolanusCenter.org. To learn more about the life of Solanus Casey, read Solanus Casey: The Official Account of a Virtuous American Life (The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000) or God bless you and yours, Letters from Solanus Casey, OFM Cap. (Father Solanus Guild, 2000).
Learn more about making pilgrimages close to home and find more sacred sites like this one here.