‘Humble friar’ Casey on road to sainthood

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to say that beatification is the final step before canonization, or sainthood, in the Catholic Church.

In his 86 years, the Rev. Solanus Casey earned various titles en route to becoming a Detroit legend: porter, priest, prophet, spiritual counselor.

Solanus Casey touched the lives of many with the Capuchin Franciscan Order of St. Joseph in Detroit.

On Saturday, 60 years and three months after his death, the renowned friar known as “The Doorman” and founder of Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen gains a more prominent distinction: “Blessed.”

In front of an anticipated 70,000 visitors from around the world at Ford Field, Casey is being beatified — the final step before canonization, or sainthood, in the Catholic Church.

the final step before canonization, or sainthood, in the Catholic Church.

“It’s interesting ... that here’s this humble friar who spent his life answering the door having this grand legacy,” said Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who leads the region’s Catholics. “It’s the legacy of everybody recognizing we can all be heroes in the work of building up God’s kingdom.”

Church officials and experts say the icon is only the second American-born male to earn this distinction, following the September beatification of Stanley Rother, a priest who died in 1981.

The milestone is sparking excitement among the faithful as well as followers who are reflecting on his story and selfless service.

“I know that this will probably never come again in my lifetime,” said Karen Griffin, who attends St. Moses the Black in Detroit and plans to sing in a large choir at the ceremony. “This is history. This man was a phenomenon. He practiced what he preached.”

From the time Casey warmly welcomed visitors to an east Detroit monastery nearly a century ago to the steady stream of worshipers praying at his tomb to this day, Casey’s name has long been synonymous with miraculous marvelous recoveries, blessings and successes others believed impossible.

Casey’s work is why efforts to pursue canonization started soon after he died on July 31, 1957, the same day and hour, it is believed, of his first Holy Mass 53 years earlier, said Father Larry Webber, a vice postulator with the Capuchin order who presented the case for beatification to the Vatican.

“It’s been the fervent effort of the faithful,” he said. “There are so many people who recognize and venerate this man as a holy saint of Detroit.”

To some in his order and beyond, Casey’s entire life exemplifies sanctity.

As recounted by a guild launched to honor his memory, the future exemplar was born Bernard Francis Casey on Nov. 25, 1870, near Oak Grove, Wisconsin, one of 16 children in a family that “honored their Irish Catholic Faith above all else.”

The boy refused to box like his brothers, fearing inflicting pain on others, the group reported. Inheriting his mother’s love for the rosary, the youngster vowed to repeat it daily and started considering the priesthood during a Christmas Eve midnight Mass not long after his first communion, according to the guild.

He later cycled through various jobs, including a lumberjack and prison guard. While driving a streetcar one day, a biographer noted, Casey witnessed an intoxicated sailor stabbing a young woman. The violent act convinced him to pursue another path as a way to spread more peace and positivity in the world.

Casey studied at a Milwaukee seminary in the 1890s, but a middling academic performance convinced his superiors to suggest he join a religious order.

The young man couldn’t choose until, during a novena for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he allegedly heard the Blessed Mother urge him: “Go to Detroit.” That was the headquarters for the Capuchins. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the order focuses on serving the poor.

Casey ended up at the Capuchins’ St. Bonaventure Monastery and, in 1897, was named after his patron: St. Francis Solanus, a Spanish missionary and priest. He returned to Wisconsin for seminary studies but struggled again, eventually becoming ordained in 1904 as a “simplex priest,” which meant he couldn’t hear confessions or preach doctrinal sermons.

After serving in New York, the Midwesterner returned to Detroit in 1924, becoming a doorkeeper at St. Bonaventure for more than 20 years.

Though not considered prominent, his position directly linked the smiling brown-robed porter in spectacles, known for offering phrases such as “Thank God ahead of time,” with visitors seeking refuge or resources.

“He had a very particular way of approaching this,” said the Rev. David Preuss, director of the Solanus Casey Center. “He welcomed. He listened to people, he prayed with them, and then he saw what their needs were.”

Capuchins honor one of Casey’s famous quotes: “I have two loves: the sick and the poor.” And that defined one of his crowning achievements.

In 1929, as the stock market crashed and sparked the Great Depression forcing Detroiters into poverty, Casey noticed many people knocking on the monastery’s door seeking food. Capuchins recall he often told other friars to serve the hungry guests soup and sandwiches.

Word spread and eventually as many as 2,000 patrons lined up for meals, prompting the friars to band with Franciscans to collect goods. Thus, Capuchin Soup Kitchen emerged and represented another step forward in Casey’s spiritual journey.

“A confirmation that God has been blessing us, Father Solanus was a great blessing to people that Pope Francis says are at the margins,” Vigneron said. “Father’s beatification is a witness that God has been with us in that. Father’s life is a call for us to imitate those same qualities, support, engage and assist one another.”

Today, the Capuchins are extending that mission of serving those in need. Programs now associated with the order’s Detroit efforts include an urban farm, substance abuse treatment program, emergency food and clothing distribution site, as well as On The Rise Bakery Café, which strives to boost ex-convicts and others seeking a fresh start.

For many in the community, “this can be an oasis in the midst of the storms in their lives — give them courage to go on for another day,” Preuss said.

Throughout his life in Detroit and even retirement, Casey, who long coped with health challenges, shared similar solace.

Over the years, many credited his prayers and intercession with curing serious, overwhelming illnesses or conditions.

“There are so many stories, thousands of stories,” said the Rev. Michael Sullivan, provincial minister for the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph. “Over and over again, we’ve heard stories of healing. People experience God moving in their lives.”

Tales abound from the devout and recorded by the Fr. Solanus Guild: scheduled operations no longer needed, hospitalizations shortened, kidney stones or pneumonia vanished, a formerly motionless 6-year-old suddenly able to walk.

Fran Diegel, a longtime Catholic from Warren, recalls turning to the late priest decades ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I did a lot of praying to Father Solanus, and I believe he helped me in some way because I’m still here, and I didn’t have to go through any chemo or anything like that,” she said while attending an event at her parish this week. “I just have a soft spot in my heart for him. I’m hoping he does get to be a saint.”

Richard Merling, 76, a Capuchin brother who grew up in Metro Detroit, had long heard reports of astonishing developments that worshippers attributed to Casey’s aid.

When Merling’s brother faced a possible leg amputation after a car accident, they rushed to meet with the priest one Sunday around Christmas 1956. Casey listened intently, told them the youth would “be all right” then offered to play his fiddle.

Merling’s sibling eventually recovered with only a noticeable scar.

“It was unbelievable,” Richard Merling said. “We felt that it was Father Solanus. It was just one of the many stories that you might hear about Father Solanus answering the prayers of people or praying for people.”

Pope John Paul II had already granted Casey “venerable” status in 1995 for a life of uncommon virtue serving God. But it was another awe-inspiring recovery that turned out to be the verified miracle needed to elevate him to “Blessed.”

In September 2012, Paula Medina Zarate was visiting the Midwest when she stopped at the Solanus Casey Center and the priest’s tomb. The Panama resident had been diagnosed with a skin disease thought incurable but was praying for others, Webber said.

After kneeling and preparing to rise, Zarate told the Capuchins a voice suddenly said: “What about yourself?” She then prayed for her own intentions and later that day, her afflicted skin began peeling and shedding, Merling recalls. “She gathered a lot of it in a cloth and towel, came over to the office where I was at. That was the beginning of what we realized was a healing.”

Through an extensive process and investigation, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints attributed the cure to Casey and his intercession. A second confirmed miracle secures a canonization recommendation.

If that happens, Casey would join an elite group of about 12 missionaries and other devout with direct ties to the Americas who have been canonized, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a Notre Dame University professor who has written a soon-to-be published book, “Citizen Saints.”

Capuchins have collected thousands of “favors” over the years, but a second confirmed miracle must occur after Pope Francis’ May declaration on the beatification, Merling said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens very soon, but that’s in God’s time,” Vigneron said.

Casey’s legacy and beatification still are significant, Cummings added. “It’s an immensely important moment for Detroit. It’s a way to lift up the city. His work and care for the poor can be an inspiration to people and how to respond to poverty and people on the edges of society.”

The beatification is expected to draw hundreds of buses carrying parishioners from Metro Detroit, Indiana, Wisconsin and elsewhere; some 240 Capuchin friars; and about 350 Casey relatives from across the country and Ireland, coordinators said.

Zarate, whose healing sparked the beatification, is expected to participate, the Capuchins said, and Cardinal Angelo Amato, a Vatican official and papal representative, presides over the Mass.

Mary Ann Bedra plans to join the other faithful with her son, daughter-in-law, grandson and fellow churchgoers at the ceremony this weekend.

“It’s once in a lifetime, and I just think it’s one of the greatest moments right now of our faith,” the Warren resident said. “It’s nice to have someone so humble like that be elevated so high. It’s an amazing thing.”

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed to this report.

Rev. Solanus Casey Beatification Mass

If you plan to go (tickets were distributed through parishes and online last month):

■Doors open to the ticket-holding public at 2 p.m., and attendees are encouraged to come early.

How to watch

The liturgy will be broadcast live on EWTN Global, the Catholic TV Network, Canada’s Salt + Light Television and locally on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit (CTND). It will also be carried on Ave Maria Radio (WDEO).

It’s also being livestreamed via the websites of the Capuchins (solanuscasey.org) and Archdiocese of Detroit (aod.org) and Facebook Live broadcast on the Father Solanus Casey and Archdiocese of Detroit pages. Closed captioning is available on the Detroit Lions Mobile App, which can be downloaded in the App Store for free. A program is available at http://solanuscasey.org/beatification-live

Who’s speaking

■Commentators for the event are Father Richard Fragomeni from the Diocese of Albany and Father Thomas Rosica, CSB, from the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers).

Source: Archdiocese of Detroit, Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph