Saint Solanus?

A sim­ple Wis­con­sin-born man over­came an early life filled with strug­gles and found his call­ing. Now, 50 years af­ter his death, he’s one step away from saint­hood.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Features - By MATTHEW J. PRIGGE

A priest born in western Wis­con­sin and or­dained in Mil­wau­kee more than a cen­tury ago stands on the edge of saint­hood. Here’s how he got there.

On a gray and rainy day last Novem­ber, more than 60,000 gath­ered at Ford Field in Detroit, the sub­ject of their ven­er­a­tion not a foot­ball star but a hum­ble Wis­con­sin-born priest who died decades ear­lier.

The oc­ca­sion was a be­at­i­fi­ca­tion ser­vice, just the third to ever take place on Amer­i­can soil, and it put the Rev. Solanus Casey on a path to the high­est honor in the Catholic Church: saint­hood. The cen­ter­piece of the event was a Mass presided over by a car­di­nal from the Vat­i­can who car­ried a let­ter in Latin from Pope Fran­cis for the as­sem­bled flock of bish­ops, arch­bish­ops, car­di­nals and the faith­ful.

Yet it was the ap­pear­ance of a re­tired school teacher from Panama that brought about the most awed rev­er­ence from the at­ten­dees. Paula Med­ina Zarate car­ried to an al­tar set up on the field a small wooden reli­quary con­tain­ing relics of the re­mains of Casey, the hum­ble friar who had an­swered Zarate’s prayers by heal­ing the painful ge­netic skin con­di­tion from which she had suf­fered since birth. Af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the 2012 heal­ing was con­firmed as a mir­a­cle by the church, an act of God that paved the way for Casey’s be­at­i­fi­ca­tion, the pre­cur­sor to saint­hood.

While the mir­a­cle heal­ing at­trib­uted to Casey oc­curred 55 years af­ter his death, it was his life that made him the sub­ject of Zarate’s prayers. He founded one of Detroit’s first soup kitchens dur­ing the throes of the Great De­pres­sion. He coun­seled the poor, down­trod­den and vul­ner­a­ble, and com­forted the ill, be­com­ing known for heal­ing mal­adies that could not be ex­plained by medicine. But be­fore all of that, Casey was a strug­gling sem­i­nar­ian in Mil­wau­kee – and be­fore that a quiet, hard­work­ing young­ster try­ing to find his way and help his fam­ily in 19th cen­tury western Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota. The idea that a late-bloomer who found study­ing chal­leng­ing might be­come the first Amer­i­can-born man to be­come a saint seems to sug­gest that God does in­deed work in mys­te­ri­ous ways.

Hum­ble Be­gin­nings

Bernard Fran­cis Casey Jr. was born on his fam­ily’s farm in the town of Oak Grove, Wis­con­sin, in the au­tumn of 1870. His par­ents, Ellen and Bernard Sr., had both been a part of the wave of Ir­ish flee­ing the potato famine and set­tled on the high bluffs above the Mis­sis­sippi River, just below its con­flu­ence with the St. Croix, in search of a good and godly life for their fam­ily. “Barney,” their sixth of 16 chil­dren, was slen­der, quiet and thought­ful.

Casey later re­called his youth in Wis­con­sin with great rev­er­ence, the sound of the great river pass­ing the farm one of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries. “I have never seen a pic­ture in Bi­ble his­tory or else­where,” Casey later wrote to his brother, “so nearly like an earthly par­adise as I re­mem­ber that scenery to be.”

But it was also a hard life. In 1878, the Casey fam­ily lost two daugh­ters to diph­the­ria. Barney, then 8, sur­vived but would suf­fer from re­lated throat prob­lems for the rest of his life, his voice re­main­ing wispy and weak even into adult­hood. An­other blow came a few years later, when chinch bugs dec­i­mated the fam­ily farm’s wheat har­vest. Barney was forced to aban­don his school­ing and found work as a lum­ber­jack in Still­wa­ter, Min­nesota. He also did odd jobs as a handy­man and worked for a time as a pri­son guard, send­ing money home to help with the fam­ily’s stricken fi­nances.

In 1888, now em­ployed as a street­car mo­tor­man, young Barney fell in love. He was 18, the girl was 17. He re­quested her mother’s per­mis­sion to ask for her hand in mar­riage, but the mother replied that the girl was bound for a board­ing school, snuff­ing out the young man’s first and only ro­man­tic pur­suit.

By 1890, Casey had set­tled in Su­pe­rior, a boom­town with such am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties for work that the en­tire Casey fam­ily soon joined him. Barney was 20 years old. He was again liv­ing with his fam­ily, he had got­ten over the heart­break of his lost love, and he had a good job driv­ing street­cars.

But Casey felt that his life lacked di­rec­tion. He was a hum­ble soul adrift in a fast-mov­ing world.

A Shock­ing Call to God

In 1891, Casey learned just how fast. Su­pe­rior was a rough place in those days. The in­dus­tries that had driven the growth of the city – min­ing, lum­ber, steel and coal – had at­tracted hordes of hard-work­ing and hard-liv­ing men to the area. Broth­els, dance halls and sa­loons gave cer­tain parts of the city a dark rep­u­ta­tion. Casey was run­ning his street­car through one of these neigh­bor­hoods on a fall day when he saw a crowd of peo­ple knot­ted around the tracks. He stopped the car and jumped off to see po­lice with their guns drawn on a crazed man, curs­ing and wield­ing a knife as blood dripped from its blade. Un­der­neath him, a young woman lay slain.

It was a shock­ing sight for a mild-man­nered young man who thought of his ru­ral up­bring­ing in near-bib­li­cal terms. “The dead body and the drunken words of ha­tred in­tro­duced him to some­thing new, some­thing sad and evil,” wrote Casey biog­ra­pher Cather­ine Odell. “Barney ag­o­nized about the di­rec­tion of his life as never be­fore [and] be­gan to de­bate some­thing deep in his heart.” The young man had heard the call.

Af­ter con­fer­ring with his fam­ily and a priest at his church, Casey de­cided to en­roll at St. Fran­cis de Sales Sem­i­nary in Mil­wau­kee. At 21, he would be­gin his stud­ies at the same level as 14- and 15-year-old boys. But Casey never wa­vered once he had made up his mind. For the first time since his aborted love af­fair, he felt a pur­pose in his life.

The chal­lenges for Casey at St. Fran­cis would have lit­tle to do with his age. In­deed, he was re­garded as a pop­u­lar stu­dent, of­ten sought out by the younger boys for life ad­vice. He took a job as the sem­i­nary bar­ber to help pay his way.

But as his stud­ies pro­gressed, he be­gan to strug­gle in the class­room. As an English-speak­ing Ir­ish-Amer­i­can, Casey was at a marked dis­ad­van­tage among his mostly Ger­man-speak­ing peers, an em­blem of the long-sim­mer­ing Ger­man-Ir­ish split in the lo­cal church. All but two of the 13 pro­fes­sors spoke Ger­man, and lessons in Ger­man and Latin were manda­tory. Casey’s grades steadily slipped. In 1895, dur­ing the equiv­a­lent of the first year of col­lege, his su­pe­ri­ors sug­gested that he not con­tinue for the dioce­san priest­hood. Casey had long strug­gled with the lan­guage bar­rier and had never been able to adopt the study habits nec­es­sary for such in-depth learn­ing. He later said it was as if his “brain just didn’t seem to want to work.”

He re­turned home in 1896, un­cer­tain of his next move. “It was cer­tainly dis­ap­point­ing and, in a way, hu­mil­i­at­ing,” Brother Leo Wol­len­we­ber, a friend of Casey’s, later said. “But he ac­cepted it as God’s plan.”

The Sim­plex Priest

Back home, it would not take long for Casey to dis­cover what God’s plan for him was. Ad­vised by a lo­cal priest to try a re­li­gious or­der, he ap­plied and was ac­cepted to three. Casey was still un­sure of what he should do when, just af­ter tak­ing Holy Com­mu­nion at a De­cem­ber Mass, he heard the voice of the Blessed Vir­gin Mary. Go to Detroit, she said. Detroit was where

the Ca­puchin Or­der was head­quar­tered. He im­me­di­ately be­gan to ar­range for this en­roll­ment at the Ca­puchin sem­i­nary. He was so sure it was God’s will that he left just days be­fore Christ­mas, even as his fam­ily urged him to wait un­til af­ter the hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion.

In Detroit, he was given a new name: Friar Fran­cis Solanus. As the monastery al­ready had a Friar Fran­cis, he be­came known as Solanus. Vow­ing poverty, chastity and obe­di­ence, Casey was ac­cepted into the or­der. In the sum­mer of 1898, at nearly 28, he re­turned to Mil­wau­kee to study for the priest­hood at the Ca­puchin sem­i­nary at St. Fran­cis of As­sisi Church on North Fourth Street.

Back in Mil­wau­kee, Casey’s aca­demic trou­bles con­tin­ued. He still strug­gled with the Ger­man-lan­guage in­struc­tion and re­ceived below-av­er­age but pass­ing grades. Casey was well aware that the con­straints of his in­tel­lect might again pre­vent him from be­com­ing or­dained. “I do not know whether, [as] a re­sult of my mea­ger tal­ents and de­fec­tive stud­ies, I am fit to as­sume the many-sided du­ties and se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the priest­hood,” he wrote his su­pe­ri­ors in 1901. “I have of­fered my­self to God with­out reser­va­tion; for that rea­son I leave it with­out anx­i­ety to the su­pe­ri­ors to de­cide about me as they may judge me best be­fore God.”

De­spite his strug­gles, the Ca­puchins saw some­thing re­mark­able in Casey’s de­vo­tion and his kind and quiet ways. It was de­cided that he would be or­dained as a “sim­plex priest,” un­able to hear con­fes­sions or to preach on doc­trine, but a true and full priest. Casey was or­dained on July 24, 1904, at the St. Fran­cis chapel, 13 years af­ter the hor­ri­ble mur­der in Su­pe­rior that proved to be his call to the priest­hood. The next week, he cel­e­brated his first Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Ap­ple­ton with his proud fam­ily in at­ten­dance. It was the first time he had seen his mother since he had left for Detroit just be­fore Christ­mas 1896.

‘Shoul­der to Shoul­der with Life’

What would be­come a saintly ca­reer had mod­est be­gin­nings. Casey was first as­signed to Sa­cred Heart Monastery in Yonkers, New York. He would serve there for 14 years, ris­ing only to the po­si­tion of porter, re­spon­si­ble for an­swer­ing the bell at the monastery door and tend­ing to the church al­tar. He would re­main in this hum­ble po­si­tion for the rest of his time in the church. In 1921, he was trans­ferred to a parish in Har­lem, where he reached out to the mostly African Amer­i­can men in­car­cer­ated at the nearby pri­son, ar­rang­ing a reg­u­lar Sun­day Mass for the ne­glected prison­ers.

In 1924, nearly 30 years af­ter the Blessed Vir­gin had di­rected Casey to Detroit, he was re­as­signed to what by then had be­come known as Mo­tor City. And it was there that he would do his great­est work. As an as­sis­tant porter at St. Bon­aven­ture Monastery, he quickly be­came the priest the con­gre­ga­tion’s most trou­bled parish­ioners sought out for guid­ance. He was es­pe­cially taken with these peo­ple, coun­sel­ing al­co­holics when oth­ers would not and work­ing tire­lessly to es­tab­lish some of the city’s first soup kitchens dur­ing the early months of the Great De­pres­sion.

Brother Richard Mer­ling, di­rec­tor of the Fa­ther Solanus Casey Guild and a lead­ing ad­vo­cate for Casey’s can­on­iza­tion, be­lieves Casey’s own strug­gles helped him to con­nect to peo­ple in need in a way that oth­ers could not. “He [was] such a down-to-earth per­son,” Mer­ling says. “Be­ing sim­ple, com­ing from such a large fam­ily, the fam­ily hav­ing suf­fered from tragedies. [He was] shoul­der to shoul­der with life, he knew life. They could feel his con­nect­ed­ness to life, [and] in be­ing hu­man.”

Be­yond his rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing able to com­fort and ad­vise, Casey also be­came known as a healer. With a few words and a gen­tle touch, the sick and dys­pep­tic would un­dergo mirac­u­lous re­cov­er­ies that baf­fled med­i­cal doc­tors. He also pos­sessed an as­ton­ish­ing abil­ity to rec­og­nize those who could not be healed. When he saw a per­son whose time on earth was near­ing its end, he would of­fer a sim­ple prayer for a peace­ful death.

He be­gan to keep a ledger in 1923 of the sick peo­ple who sought his coun­sel. He wrote in his ledgers nearly every day un­til 1956, by which time he had ac­cu­mu­lated over 6,000 en­tries. “To him, these fa­vors were a sign of the good­ness and mercy of God’s love for his peo­ple,” Wol­len­we­ber later wrote.

A Road to Saint­hood

Af­ter a decade of in­creas­ingly poor health, Casey died on July 31, 1957, at age 86. An out­pour­ing of rev­er­ence and love fol­lowed, and an es­ti­mated 20,000 mourn­ers at­tended his funeral.

Three years later, the Fa­ther Solanus Casey Guild was founded in Detroit to pre­serve his me­mory and honor his nu­mer­ous good works. In 1967 the Ca­puchin gen­er­alate in Rome be­gan the long process of de­ter­min­ing if Casey was wor­thy of can­on­iza­tion. It was an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing. At the time, the only saints as­so­ci­ated with the United States were a group of a Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies who had been tor­tured and killed in up­state New York in the 1640s (the men were be­at­i­fied and can­on­ized as mar­tyrs) and Mother Frances Cabrini, a nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zen who was can­on­ized in 1946.

For those work­ing to­wards can­on­iza­tion, pa­tience would most cer­tainly be a virtue. “It takes a lot of time and money to ad­vance a per­son for saint­hood,”

says Steven Avella, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Mar­quette Uni­ver­sity. “It re­quires years of care­ful study: sep­a­rat­ing fact from fic­tion, the ex­is­tence of a gen­uine de­vo­tion among peo­ple, and a very lengthy and care­ful scru­tiny of all the ev­i­dence sur­round­ing his/her life – es­pe­cially ev­i­dence of mir­a­cles.”

By 1977, with the Fa­ther Casey Guild con­tin­u­ing his work on be­half of the poor and the Ca­puchin soup kitchen still serv­ing thou­sands, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the “ho­li­ness” of Casey was un­der­way, and the Detroit arch­dio­cese put out a pub­lic call for doc­u­ments or sto­ries to use on Casey’s be­half. The Guild had al­ready be­gun work to doc­u­ment a num­ber of cures and fa­vors that were at­trib­uted to Casey’s in­ter­ces­sion since his death.

With the ground­work laid, the first of­fi­cial step to­wards can­on­iza­tion was com­pleted in 1995 when Pope John Paul II de­clared Casey “ven­er­a­ble,” mak­ing him the first Amer­i­can-born man to be so hon­ored. Be­at­i­fi­ca­tion, the next step in the process, would be granted if the Vat­i­can could con­firm that Casey was re­spon­si­ble for a mirac­u­lous heal­ing, the most rig­or­ous part of the process.

Fit­tingly, the mir­a­cle for which Casey was be­at­i­fied was a heal­ing at his for­mer monastery in Detroit. In 2012, Zarate trav­eled to St. Bon­aven­ture to pray at Casey’s tomb. As she re­counted to the Detroit Free Press, Zarate felt a force as she stood up from the tomb and heard a voice ask­ing her what she needed. She fell back to her knees and asked for mercy from her painful skin con­di­tion. As she knelt, she felt a pow­er­ful heat and a sen­sa­tion that was as if “I wasn’t in­side my own body.” Later that day, her body be­gan to shed the dry, scaly skin that had caused her such agony. As the scales fell, her skin be­came smooth and healthy. An in­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion fol­lowed and pro­duced a thick doc­u­ment that the Detroit arch­dio­cese sub­mit­ted to the Vat­i­can. Af­ter a thor­ough review, in­clud­ing scru­tiny from a der­ma­tol­o­gist, the church de­ter­mined that the heal­ing could not be ex­plained by sci­ence, and in 2017 – 50 years af­ter the first ef­forts to­wards can­on­iza­tion – Casey was ap­proved for be­at­i­fi­ca­tion.

Will Casey be can­on­ized? And if so, when? Avella says that while many peo­ple re­main “stuck” in be­at­i­fi­ca­tion mode for many years, he feels that “it will not be long for Blessed Solanus” to be­come Saint Solanus. The oc­ca­sion would be sig­nif­i­cant for Amer­i­can Catholics. “The cult of the saints is very dear to Catholics (and is) a huge part of our iden­tity,” Avella says. “Seek­ing role mod­els and in­ter­ces­sors is built into our DNA. God works through these some­times very weak hu­man be­ings – in our weak­ness his power reaches per­fec­tion. He chooses the weak and makes them strong.”

Below: “Barney” Casey (top row, third from left) and his fam­ily

Left: Paula Med­ina Zarate at Fa­ther Casey’s be­at­i­fi­ca­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.