May 12, 2017

Reflection / John F. Fink

Capuchin Father Solanus Casey has a connection to Indiana

John F. FinkThe announcement that Capuchin Franciscan Father Solanus Casey will soon be beatified should bring joy to us in Indiana, because Father Solanus spent 10 years in our state. Those years were spent at

St. Felix Monastery in Huntington in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend from 1946 to 1956.

Huntington is where I grew up. I was a student at Huntington Catholic High School from 1946 to 1948, and I remember Father Solanus visiting the school more than once.

Pope Francis announced on May 4 that Father Solanus met the requirements for beatification and will be named “blessed.” No date has been announced yet for his beatification.

Father Solanus died in 1957. Therefore, numerous people living today met him and were perhaps cured of an illness through his prayers.

He was born in Prescott, Wis., on Nov. 25, 1870, the sixth of 16 children of Bernard and Ellen Casey, both Irish immigrants when they were children. He was named after his father and, like his father, was called Barney as he grew up.

The Caseys practiced all the Catholic devotions that were common at the time, including regular family prayers. As an adult, the rosary was seldom far from his hand, and he prayed it often each day.

In 1878, black diphtheria struck the neighborhood and the Casey family. Two of the children died, and Barney had a severe case that made his voice weak, wispy and high-pitched for the rest of his life.

Barney tried to become a diocesan priest, but his grades were so poor that he was asked to leave the seminary. Then he learned about the Capuchins, and was accepted at their novitiate in Milwaukee. He was given the religious name Solanus in honor of a Spanish Franciscan who worked in South America in the 17th century.

His grades there, though, were not much better—mainly because classes were taught in German and Latin. His superiors finally decided to ordain him, but as a “simplex priest,” without faculties to hear confessions or preach formal sermons.

His first assignment was in Yonkers, N.Y. He was assigned to be a porter, welcoming people when they arrived at the monastery. It wasn’t long before word got out that Father Solanus had the gift of healing, a gift that he was quick to deny. “Only God can heal,” he insisted. But the people were healed through Father Solanus’ intercession. He also had the gift of prophecy, frequently telling about things that would happen in the future.

After 14 years at Yonkers, he continued his ministry of porter in Manhattan for six years, and then at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit for 21 years. Thousands of people came to see him, and he patiently met with all of them, often skipping his meals to do so.

He also became involved in various social justice causes, especially during the Depression, and promoted devotion to Mary by endorsing a three-volume work called The Mystical City of God by Mary of Agreda, a 17th century Spanish Franciscan sister.

He was transferred to St. Michael’s in Brooklyn in 1945 and then to St. Felix Monastery in Huntington in 1946. That was his last assignment, when he was semi-retired but still answering 40 to 50 letters a day. He returned to Detroit in 1956, where he died on July 31, 1957, at age 86.

Father Solanus was noted not only for the hundreds of healings that took place through his prayers, but also for the extraordinary way he practiced the virtues, perhaps especially the virtue of humility.

The late Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel is widely known for his devotional books and for his appearances on the Eternal Word Television Network. He came to know Father Solanus when Father Benedict was a Capuchin novice. He wrote about coming across Father Solanus deep in prayer in the chapel at 3 o’clock in the morning, completely oblivious to Father Benedict’s presence.

Father Benedict also wrote that, in the course of his life, he had the opportunity to know and observe several people known for their holiness. Nevertheless, he said, “Father Solanus was the most extraordinary. I could easily say without any hesitation that he was the greatest human being I have ever known.”

That is why we Hoosiers can take pride that this very simple priest once lived in our midst.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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