Novena celebrates Casey's life of service

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Solanus Casey, whose legacy of goodwill has led him a step away from sainthood, is being honored beginning Sunday with a novena leading up to his first feast day on July 30.

Casey's body remains entombed under glass and is accessible to all who visit the campus of St. Bonaventure Monastery on Mt. Elliott on Detroit's east side. 

People gather around the resting place of Blessed Solanus Casey after a Blessing of the Sick service.

The revered friar, known for his selfless giving and launching Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen, has been buried at St. Bonaventure since being venerated in July 1995 by Pope John Paul II. Even before the Sunday morning service, visitors would stop at his casket and pray a few words. Others, after the sign of the cross, would write out their prayers, and leave them in small wooden boxes.

'Go to Detroit' 

Sunday's was the first day in a nine-part novena. On all nine days, after the Mass, a special prayer, Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will be read, church officials said, and was chosen because it was after reading that litany that Casey said he was called by Mary, who told him to "Go to Detroit."

Casey's legacy is that of great service, not great oratory or great study, and his career in ministry started on a rocky note, biographical information says.

The former Barney Casey was ordained on July 24, 1904, but there was a catch: because of his poor grades, he would work as a "simplex" priest, not empowered to hear confessions or give sermons, according to a history exhibit at the Solanus Casey Center.

On July 24, 114 years to the day he was ordained, is the third day in Casey's novena.

Father Solanus Casey in 1954.

For much of his early career, Casey and the Capuchins weren't a great fit. They spoke German and wore beards and he didn't care for doing either. But he accepted their invitation, and had he not, he might never have come to Detroit, arriving as he did on Christmas Eve 1896. 

"He was tired and cold, and concerned that he might have made a terrible mistake," the exhibit explained. 

He went to sleep that night and was awakened on Christmas morning "by the chants of the priests and brothers." He realized he was home. He'd stay in Detroit for the better part of eight years before heading to New York after his ordination.

Casey stayed in New York for two decades before being appointed friar of St. Bonaventure on July 31, 1924. He arrived in Detroit the next day and during the Great Depression would do the work he is perhaps best known for, founding the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which has served Detroit's poor for almost 100 years. 

He'd stay in Detroit through July 1945 and would return in the spring of 1956 for medical treatment. He died on July 31, 1957, at St. John Hospital on the east side. 

In November, Casey was elevated by Pope Francis to Blessed Solanus Casey, a step away from sainthood. On the back page of the booklet containing the litany to be read during the novenas is a prayer that Casey will be canonized to sainthood.

"If it is Your Will, bless us with the canonization of Father Solanus, so that others may imitate and carry on his love for all the poor and suffering of our world," the prayer reads in part.

The front of the booklet contains a quote from Casey: "Learn to know Mary that you may love heaven and heavenly things." 

Hope and faith

Mari Malave, 37, came from Milwaukee to Detroit on Sunday to take part in a blessing of the sick, which was offered at 2 p.m. Malave is a two-time breast cancer survivor.

"In 2009, I was stage one. Two years ago, in August 2016, I was stage four," Malave said. "And I'm good. I just got a check up two, three weeks ago, and there was nothing."

Asked what she attributes going from stage one to stage four — there is no stage five — and a clean screening, she holds up her the tattoos on her two forearms. On the right, in cursive, reads "hope." On the left, "faith."

"Hope and faith, that's what I'm rolling with!" she said Sunday. "That's all I've been riding on."

Malave arrived on Friday with her friend Butch Waldoch, 37. They took in a Detroit Tigers game, hit the MGM Grand Casino, and walked the Riverwalk, but on Sunday they fulfilled the purpose of the trip by partaking in the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Bonaventure, with plans to return later for the prayer. 

When Father Gerry Pehler, who gave the homily Sunday, inquired who among the hundreds in attendance had come from out of town, Malave was the first to raise her hand, noting afterward that Casey's home state was Milwaukee. Others hailed from Virginia, Indianapolis and Illinois. 

Christopher Davis, 47, of Ferndale and Theresa Caverly, 57, of Grosse Pointe Farms have been going to St. Bonaventure for less than a year, but feel touched by the spirit of service they've found at the church.

Caverly touted not only the church's soup kitchen, but also its modern-day extension, the On the Rise Bakery Cafe on Gratiot, which gives the downtrodden a new lease on life by giving them job opportunities at the shop five days a week. 

Caverly said she's seen people who arrive hungry be fed. She's seen its leadership mix in with the congregation during Mass rather than sit on a stage with one another. She's noticed an "unbelievably approachable" group of leaders, which is a different experience than she knew growing up in Catholic school in the suburbs.

"They're here with you," Caverly said. "They talk to you as real people."

Davis said that when he's blue, simply sitting near Casey's crypt lifts his spirits. 

St. Bonaventure is a large but aging church that gets almost full participation when the collection plate is passed or there are songs to sing. New visitors can expect to have people on either side of them introduce themselves and extend words of welcome. 

Sunday's homily was taken from Mark 6:31, which reads, in part, "come away and rest a while."

Pehler urged those in attendance to question the frenetic pace of the modern world. 

"Our world equates busyness with success, so much so that people bring laptops to vacation, bringing along their concerns" on what should be a time to relax.

This fixation on busyness creates anxiety and confusion. 

Better, Pehler urged, to partake in a silence that is "not the mere absence of noise, but coming to a stillness within."

On the nine days of novena

Each of the nine days of the novena has its own theme. Sunday's was music, which Casey loved. 

Monday's is the poor, Tuesday's, neighbors, Wednesday's is the sick. On Thursday, it is religious and consecrated life, Friday is about families, Saturday's theme is young adults, next Sunday is about the church, and July 30 is feast day.

Marking Casey’s first feast day “is a dream come true,” said Sally McCuen, hospitality coordinator at the Solanus Casey Center, earlier this week. “A feast day is a very special way for Catholics to celebrate a holy person. They are being an intercessor for us to God, so it’s a day for us to really celebrate and emulate that person, also.”