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Devotees flock to Detroit to honor Rev. Solanus Casey

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Beatte Rozzell long has counted herself among the legion of those devoted to the Rev. Solanus Casey.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron said in a statement that the beatification of the priest "is an incomparable grace" for the church and the Detroit area. “He is an inspiration to all us Catholics — and to all — of the power of grace to transform one’s life.”

The longtime Capuchin friar, who gained fame for his piety, charity and humility in the 20th century, also shared incisive sayings and “prayer poems” that Rozzell often takes to heart. And for several years, the Detroiter has attended the Blessing of the Sick at the chapel inside in the center named after Casey on the city’s east side — a ritual she credits with positive results.

So, when the legendary figure is beatified Saturday in an historic ceremony at Ford Field downtown, Rozzell plans to join the throng of attendees estimated to reach 70,000.

“It’s the right time,” Rozzell said while visiting the Solanus Casey Center this week. “I’m very excited to be a part of it.”

She’s not alone. The chance to witness a major event that elevates the Motor City icon to “blessed,” and another step closer to saint, is luring worshippers from across the country and as far away as Asia, Europe and Central America.

“People are coming from all over the world for this event,” said Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau and vice chair for the committee coordinating the beatification.

They also are trekking from locales around the Midwest where Casey lived, worked or influenced the devout.

The friar was born in 1870 to an Irish immigrant family in Wisconsin, where a biography and a Fr. Solanus Guild history say he first entertained his spiritual leanings.

In his 20s, Casey studied at St. Francis de Sales Seminary near Milwaukee, earning marks low enough to prompt staffers to urge him to join a religious order instead. He eventually journeyed to the Capuchins in Detroit, then enrolled in another state seminary on the road to becoming a popular spiritual counselor and healer.

Today, St. Francis de Sales has a simple shrine to him in a main building, and this weekend, about 50 seminarians and priests are boarding a bus to Detroit for a pilgrimage that includes the beatification as well as a stop at the Solanus Casey Center, said Fr. John Hemsing, its rector.

“This man once walked the halls. We still live in the same building where Father Solanus was a student,” he said. “St. Francis played a part in his formation. It’s going to be a time of prayer and celebrating.”

Prayer requests left on the casket of Fr. Solanus Casey at the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit.

Another group of about 50 is also flocking from St. Patrick in Hudson, Wisconsin, where Casey reportedly received his first Communion. The parish features prayer cards, information detailing the friar’s efforts and a chapel statue in his likeness, said the Rev. John Gerritts, its pastor.

“I was just talking with one of our sixth grade classes, telling them how exciting it is that someone who is a step away from a being a saint walked the same streets,” Gerritts said. “We need heroes in the world. How exciting it is to have someone who has done wonderful things in a way that promotes human love and kindness.”

Casey’s example is still remembered in Indiana, where he semi-retired after leaving the Detroit Capuchins in the 1940s. Even there, at the St. Felix friary in Huntington, people still traveled to seek his intercession, said Jan Scher, who directs the local extension of the Solanus guild.

Besides offering kind words and fielding requests to cure infertility and tumors, she has heard, “he was known to stay up all night. He was found on the altar, praying in front of Jesus.”

More than 170 guests are slated to travel from the area to Detroit for the beatification — some toting red bandanas in honor of what Casey donned to dab tears while recounting Christ’s sacrifices, Scher said. Guild members also plan to follow in his footsteps.

“We feel very blessed that he lived here. He helped in many miracles. … He was one of the very humble saints among us that everybody knew as holy. We just want to spread that holiness.”

Along with those devotees, parishioners from throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit are heading to Ford Field for the ceremony.

Nearly 70 parishioners from St. Faustina in Warren intend to take a bus to Eastern Market, then head over to the stadium since so many others are arriving then, parish secretary Linda Reiterman said. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

St. Joan of Arc in St. Clair Shores has more than 200 parishioners headed there on multiple buses, said its pastor, Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin. Some are traveling separately.

“Everyone is very excited,” he said. “Father Solanus Casey is a huge name for us in the Detroit area. He was just a phenomenal priest who did incredible work by opening doors for people to get to know Christ. He was a great influence on a lot of people whom he encountered.”

Some members have prayed at Casey’s tomb, and Bugarin recalls a family visiting there in the 1990s praying to heal their son, who was battling brain cancer. The young man eventually succumbed, but the prayers offered him hope. “He believed and he was a very strong person of faith. Those visits to the monastery helped him in his journey,” Bugarin said.

So many in Metro Detroit are familiar with Casey and the Capuchins, the beatification committee easily found volunteers and vendors to tackle the numerous tasks needed for the ceremony, chairwoman Gerarda Tobin said.

The cherry-wood altar, designed by Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts, was created for Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the Pontiac Silverdome.

The panel of about 20 members also consulted a transportation expert to help coordinate the myriad arrivals described as “unprecedented,” since the estimated 400 buses amassing there are “nearly 10 times what is expected during a typical game,” she said.

Much effort is involved in reconfiguring the stadium to accommodate crowds that could top the attendance for the 2006 Super Bowl, said O’Callaghan, the visitors bureau official.

There are also special touches. The cherry-wood altar at midfield, designed by Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts, was created for Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the Pontiac Silverdome.

Coordinators are heeding that historic gathering’s template for communion distribution, Tobin said.

The Metro Detroit businesswoman notes that Ford Field is essentially being transformed into a massive church for those such as her 94-year-old mother, whose neighbor in southwest Detroit believes Casey restored his eyesight.

“People are going to use this opportunity as their own Lourdes, their own healing process,” Tobin said. “We all pray Father Solanus hears the prayers.”

For those already attuned to spiritual matters, the beatification is heaven-sent.

“It’s something beautiful,” said Ann Marie Golindo of Southfield, who also planned to attend the solemn ceremony. “There’s something good when so much bad is happening.”

Solanus Casey beatification

Event starts at 4 p.m. Saturday. For details or more information on watching: www.beatification.visitdetroit.com, http://solanuscasey.org/beatification-live, www.aod.org