When the doorbell of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit rang, it sounded sharp and clear, like the clanging of a school bell.
And if it rang in the wee hours of the morning, it nearly always startled the thirty or so residents out of their sleep. But for more than twenty years, one man hurried to open the heavy carved oak doors: Fr. Solanus Casey, “the porter of St. Bonaventure”—the humble, compassionate, healing priest who may one day be the first American-born man to be canonized.
Set Apart. “We knew there was something different about Fr. Solanus,” said Capuchin Franciscan Brother Leo Wollenweber, who served as his assistant for six years. “But in the monastery he was just another one of the friars, and we didn’t know the deep impact he was having on so many people.”
Eighty-five-year-old Brother Leo recalled that Fr. Solanus had “a great sense of humor. He would tell little jokes—often on himself. The friars would kid him a lot, too. He loved hot dogs smothered with onions and he loved baseball. Even when away from Michigan he would keep tabs on the Detroit Tigers. It was his simple and down-to-earth manner that made it easy for people to relate to him. No one seemed intimidated by him.”
One of his favorite pastimes was playing his violin. “He was no virtuoso,” said Br. Leo. When his fellow Capuchins saw him coming, fiddle in hand, they would sometimes busy themselves to avoid the one-man show. “But if his friends didn’t want to listen, he would take his violin into the chapel and play before the Blessed Sacrament.”
Avoiding Fr. Solanus was unthinkable, however, for those in need of advice, consolation, or healing. They would wait for hours—shifting in the wooden chairs in the large entry hall—until they could have just a moment with the compassionate priest. “It was only after his death that we came to realize how much he had done and how close he was to God,” Br. Leo confessed.
Indeed, the monastery files are literally bulging with hundreds of letters from people who were helped by Fr. Solanus when he was living, and with thousands more from people who have experienced his help since his death. Still today, people come by the thousands to the monastery’s Solanus Casey Center, leaving memorabilia, flowers, and petitions on his gravesite inside by the chapel, praying for his intervention.
Early Years. Born in Wisconsin to Irish immigrant farmers in 1870, Bernard Casey was the sixth of sixteen children. A diphtheria epidemic claimed the lives of two of his sisters and permanently damaged his voice, leaving it wispy.
While Bernard had long considered the priesthood, family obligations prevented him from entering St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee until he was in his mid-twenties. There he struggled with classes taught only in Latin and German and was dismissed after one year.
Seeking direction, Bernard made a novena in preparation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. While praying at Mass, he later revealed, he felt Mary’s presence and distinctly perceived the words, “Go to Detroit.” On Christmas Eve 1896, he entered St. Bonaventure Monastery, headquarters for the St. Joseph Province of the Capuchins in the US. He donned the traditional brown Franciscan habit and sandals and took the name of his patron, St. Francis Solanus.
Again he struggled academically, and his superiors had doubts about his calling. However, because his moral qualities were so outstanding, he was ordained on July 24, 1904. But there were limitations: he could not preach formal sermons or hear confessions. Solanus humbly and obediently accepted his restrictions.
Appointed to a New York friary, Solanus served primarily as “porter,” or receptionist and doorkeeper. Word of his compassion quickly spread, and reports of miraculous occurrences began to circulate. “People would come back and say, ‘Thank you, Fr. Solanus, for healing me,’” said Br. Leo. “He would choke up and say, ‘No, it is your faith in the Lord that has healed you.’”
By 1923, the Capuchin provincial asked Solanus to keep a notebook of special cases and reported healings related to his consultations. Over the years he filled seven notebooks.
Solanus returned to Detroit in 1924. Within two weeks, traffic at St. Bonaventure increased from about six visitors a day to about one hundred. “People began telling others about him, and the word was that if you had anything wrong or any problem or any trouble, go down to the monastery and see Fr. Solanus,” said Br. Leo. Because the doorbell was always ringing, it wasn’t long before the door was left unlocked with a sign over the button that read, “Walk In.”
“People might wait an hour or more to talk with him, but nobody got impatient or complained,” said Br. Leo. “And he would never hurry anybody. He would listen to your story as if he had all the time in the world, and he would try to advise you, console you, comfort you and then he would usually give a blessing. When the people got home, often they would discover whoever had been sick was cured.”
Solanus’ concern for the hungry during the Depression was the inspiration for Detroit’s first soup kitchen. He began handing out food from his office, and in 1929 the Capuchin Soup Kitchen was formed. It is still going strong.
Healing Touch. For Eleanor and Mitchell Bartold of Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, Solanus Casey was like a family member. They met him in their early teens and look back fondly on their friendship with him. In 1953, when the youngest of their three children, Susan, was just three years old, she contracted polio. As paralysis began to set in, her back arched backward like a bow.
They called Fr. Solanus, who was then in Indiana. “He told us not to worry, but to make a nine-day novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help,” said Eleanor. “We did just what he told us, and on the ninth day she lay flat for the first time.” Susan remained in the hospital for three months. Today she is the mother of five grown sons and has no signs of her childhood paralysis.
“We took Susan to see Fr. Solanus the following summer, and he scooped her right up and hugged her and kissed her and blessed her and all of us,” said Eleanor. “As we were getting ready to leave, he bent over to give Susan a little pat on the head, and a bunch of gingersnaps fell out of his robe. He looked so sad and said, ‘I was saving those for you.’ He really loved the children and often had a little treat for them.”
“I Give My Soul to Jesus Christ.” After serving in Detroit for 21 years, 74-year-old Solanus was sent to New York, then to the novitiate in Indiana. His superiors hoped the transfers would alleviate his exhausting schedule, but people continued to come in droves. Others wrote to him—some 300 letters a day poured into St. Felix novitiate. During his ten years there, he wrote hundreds of letters about life and God.
In 1956, at the age of 85, Solanus was sent back to Detroit to receive medical help for a skin disease. Visitors were limited, but it was during this time that Br. Richard Merling’s family was allowed to meet with him, on the Sunday before Christmas 1956.
Fifteen at the time, Br. Richard recalled the visit, which included his mother, father, and sister. The family was worried about his older brother, who had suffered a compound fracture of the leg in a car accident and needed bone grafts. “After we told Fr. Solanus about my brother’s accident, he said, ‘Don’t worry, things will be all right.’ He said it as if he knew things would be fine. And as time went on, my brother healed perfectly well.”
But something else occurred, which Br. Richard wasn’t aware of at the time. “When we were ready to leave, he blessed us. I remember kneeling there and him putting his hand on my shoulder with the relic of the cross.”
Many years later, Br. Richard learned that at that moment his mother had received the distinct impression that her son was claimed for the monastery. Not wanting to influence him, she never told him. Six years later, Br. Richard made the decision for religious life. “It wasn’t until after my mother died that my sister told me what had happened all those years ago.”.
On the morning of July 31, 1957, just seven months after his meeting with the Merlings, Solanus Casey died at the age of eighty-six. He had been at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit for a month during his final illness and was suffering greatly from the skin infection. The day before he died, Fr. Solanus confided to his superior that he had prayed to be perfectly conscious as death approached so that “with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God.”
On the morning of his death, Solanus attempted to say something to a nun in the room at the time, but his already weak voice was inaudible. “Suddenly,” said Brother Leo, “he sat straight up in his bed and with his last breath he said in a clear voice, ‘I give my soul to Jesus Christ.’”
On November 18, 2017, Fr. Solanus Casey was beatified at Ford Field in Detroit. More information is available at www.solanuscasey.org.