Fr. Solanus Casey, the doorkeeper at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, Michigan, had already seen many people on that warm summer day in 1941. They came to him because he had a reputation for kindness and wisdom—and miracles. One who stopped in was a fellow Capuchin on his way to have emergency dental work; he was instantly healed when Solanus blessed him. Returning later to report that the dentist had found his tooth perfectly healthy, the brother received yet another surprise.
“This calls for a celebration!” said Fr. Solanus, opening a desk drawer. Out came some ice cream cones that he had been given a half hour earlier. Despite the heat, they hadn’t melted a bit.
Pope Francis once remarked that God is “the God of surprises.” In many ways, God certainly surprised the thousands of people who received healing, guidance, and other blessings through the ministry of Fr. Solanus Casey. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that they flowed from a man who began his priestly life under a cloud of failure and was never given more than a minor job.
A Wandering Path. The unassuming priest with amazing supernatural gifts grew up as Barney Casey, a rather ordinary boy in a large Irish immigrant family in Wisconsin. When he wasn’t helping to farm the land, he liked to hunt, play baseball with his nine brothers, play an occasional practical joke, and squeak out tunes on the violin.
Influenced by his parents’ strong faith, young Barney developed habits of personal prayer, especially the daily Rosary. He thought about becoming a priest, but instead of entering the seminary in high school, as did many young men of his day, he went to work to help support his family. He drifted from job to job: lumberjack, handyman, prison guard, and, finally, streetcar conductor. He also fell in love and proposed marriage, but the idea was squelched by the young woman’s mother, who thought her daughter too young.
Then one day on the job, still uncertain about his life’s direction, Barney brought his streetcar to a screeching halt. A crowd had gathered around a woman lying dead on the tracks as her killer stood over her with a bloody knife. Shaken, Barney spent that night praying for the two and went on to consider what he himself could do to oppose evil and violence. He soon became convinced that God was calling him to become a priest.
Most Unlikely to Succeed. Barney’s challenges were just beginning. He entered the diocesan seminary in Milwaukee but was eventually dismissed for low grades. (It didn’t help that classes were taught in German, and the textbooks were in Latin!) Disappointed, he returned home. However, after praying a novena, he heard Our Lady direct him to the Capuchin Franciscans and their seminary in Detroit. Entering as a postulant, he took the name Solanus.
Again, despite his best efforts, Solanus failed to make acceptable grades. His superiors wondered whether he was intellectually qualified for the priesthood. So they had him sign a statement acknowledging his “meager talents” and accepting whatever they might decide about his ordination.
Three years later, Solanus was ordained—but only as a “simple” priest. That designation meant that while he could celebrate Mass, he was prevented from hearing confessions or preaching formal homilies. He didn’t generally discuss his feelings, so we can only imagine what he felt about this disappointing outcome of ten hard years of study.
Solanus could have contested his superiors’ decision or bemoaned his fate. He could also have resigned himself to forever being considered second best. Instead, he joyfully embraced his limited status as God’s true vocation for him. In fact, Deo gratias! or “Thanks be to God!” became his trademark response to all sorts of situations. As he later wrote, “If we could only learn to appreciate the holy faith and the innumerable blessings following from it . . . we could never have time to worry about anything.”
Perhaps this gratitude explains what is most surprising about him: that someone who could have seen himself as a failure surpassed everyone’s expectations simply because he kept his eyes focused on God.
God’s Doorkeeper. At first, no one expected much of Casey. Assigned to a Capuchin parish and monastery in Yonkers, New York, he was given humble tasks, including answering the door and greeting visitors. But this cheerful porter with a thin build, bright blue eyes, and high-pitched voice made himself every visitor’s friend.
People discovered that Solanus had amazing spiritual insights, a comforting presence, and an endless supply of patience. He spent as much time with visitors as they needed. As a result, his reputation began to spread—and not just for being a good listener.
When he enrolled people in the Seraphic Mass Association, which Capuchins used as a means of intercessory prayer, so many of them reported blessings received that Solanus’ superiors directed him to keep a record. The blessings continued when Solanus transferred to the Detroit monastery, where he answered the door for the next twenty-one years. They persisted even during his “retirement,” as people shared prayer intentions with him either in person or by mail. By the end of his life, Casey had filled seven notebooks noting more than six thousand cases of answered prayers!
Favors and Foibles. Some of these “favors,” as Solanus called them, were physical healings. A woman given three days to live was cured of pneumonia. A boy whose limbs had been stiffened by polio stunned his parents by walking down the stairs. Blindness, gangrene, memory loss, cancer, deafness, heart disease—all sorts of healing reports came flooding in.
There were emotional and spiritual healings as well. People were delivered from alcoholism and depression. Some were brought back from the brink of suicide. There were miracles of conversion. One day an impassioned Communist came in saying he hated priests and wanted to kill Fr. Casey. “That’s something that should be discussed,” Solanus replied. Within a few minutes, the man was moved to repentance.
Solanus also had prophetic gifts. He could often read hearts and tell people what would happen to them or their loved ones. Almost casually, he would say things like “Yes, you will be a nun” or “You haven’t been praying” or “Don’t worry; he’ll be better by morning.” One woman, distraught that her father had left the Church, approached Solanus at a parish picnic. He listened while eating his hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut, and predicted—correctly—that her father would return to the faith. To a man whose wife was facing an operation, Solanus replied that she wouldn’t need it and would be back home soon; then, always the baseball fan, he said, “Now, tell me how the Detroit Tigers are doing.”
The thousands who came to him probably didn’t expect a miracle worker to seem so ordinary. “Quirky,” some of his fellow Capuchins might have added. He did have some unusual ways: combining all his food—cereal, coffee, orange juice, potatoes, ice cream—into one bowl at mealtimes, for example, and playing his harmonica to calm the bees in the monastery’s hive. He was also known to play his squeaky violin before the Blessed Sacrament!
Thank God ahead of Time. Another surprise for visitors was that Solanus expected something of them. Typically, after hearing their stories, he would urge them to pray and “thank God ahead of time” for blessings to come. “Have faith! Trust in God!” he would say, sometimes with tears in his eyes. Then he would ask them to demonstrate their faith in some concrete way, like giving to the poor or doing some spiritual reading.
Of course, no one was a more persevering and faith-filled intercessor than Solanus himself. Despite spending twelve or more hours a day with people in need, he was in the chapel, often lost in prayer, early in the morning and late at night.
Finally, at age eighty-six, plagued by a severe and long-standing skin disease, Solanus began to fail. Painful sores had him writhing in agony. “My whole body hurts,” he admitted, but with a radiant face that showed nothing but gratitude. So did his final words, delivered as he lay dying on July 31, 1957. Suddenly sitting up in bed, Solanus stretched his arms out and said, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.”
Surprising Solanus. In the three days after his death, more than twenty thousand people came to pay their respects to Fr. Solanus, the “simple” priest who never heard one single confession but who, as porter, opened a doorway to God for so many.
Declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1995, Solanus is still opening doors today. Reports of prayers answered through his intercession continue to pour in. They number in the thousands, says Br. Richard Merling, director of the Solanus Casey Guild in Detroit. “We have at least eight drawers filled with petitions or favors received. Many beautiful healings really do take place. He continues to touch people.”
Solanus Casey, who was amazed by every miracle he saw and who never took credit for them, would have been astonished. In the end, perhaps the one most surprised by his life would be Solanus himself.
Bob French is a contributing writer for The Word Among Us. More information about Solanus Casey at www.solanuscasey.org.