Pope Francis announces Fr. Solanus Casey to be declared ‘blessed’

Fr. Solanus Casey is pictured in his Capuchin habit in this file photo. Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of the venerable Detroit friar and signed a decree for his beatification — the second U.S.-born man to be declared “blessed” by the Church.

Pope Francis affirms miracle attributed to beloved friar’s intercession, paving the way for Detroit’s champion of the poor to be named ‘blessed’

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron smiles during a morning news conference May 4 to announce the news that Pope Francis has approved the beatification of Detroit Capuchin Friar Fr. Solanus Casey. (Tim Hinkle, Archdiocese of Detroit)

DETROIT — Sixty years after his death, Venerable Fr. Solanus Casey is on his way to sainthood.

Pope Francis announced May 4 that Detroit’s beloved Capuchin friar has met the requirements for beatification and will be named “blessed” — the second U.S.-born man to achieve such a designation and the first person from Michigan.

Although Fr. Solanus was born in Oak Grove, Wis., in 1870, he spent most of his adult life and ministry in Detroit, caring for the sick, poor and downtrodden and lending a listening ear and caring heart to the thousands who came to him for counsel, wisdom and aid.

Among the hundreds — if not thousands — of healings attributed to Fr. Solanus during and after his lifetime, Pope Francis recognized the authenticity of a miracle necessary for the friar to be elevated from “venerable” to “blessed" after a thorough review by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, including panels of doctors and theologians, was completed earlier this year.

“The beatification of Fr. Solanus Casey is an incomparable grace for the Church in the Archdiocese of Detroit and for the whole community of Southeast Michigan,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in a statement. “He is an inspiration to all us Catholics – and to all – of the power of grace to transform one’s life.”

The archbishop was greeted with whistles and loud cheers when he announced during a 10:30 a.m. news conference at St. Bonaventure Monastery that the Holy Father had affirmed the miracle through Fr. Solanus’ intercession, “and now he’s on his way to beatification.”

Fr. Solanus Casey counsels a woman in this 1954 file photo. During his lifetime, countless men, women and young people came to Fr. Solanus seeking wisdom, counsel and aid, and few left his company disappointed.

According to Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., director of the Solanus Casey Center, the miracle needed to raise Fr. Solanus to “blessed” involved a woman with an incurable genetic skin disease. The woman was visiting friends in Detroit and stopped at Fr. Solanus’ tomb to pray for others’ intentions. After her prayers, she felt the strong urging to ask for the friar’s intercession for herself, too, and received an instant and visible healing.

The miraculous nature of her cure was verified by doctors in her home country, in Detroit and in Rome, all of whom confirmed there was no scientific explanation.

“She knew the Capuchins and decided to come to Detroit — to the tomb,” Fr. Preuss told The Michigan Catholic. “She came here because she had a whole list of people she wanted to pray for. So she prayed for them, and a voice in her head said, ‘Pray for yourself.’ And she was instantly cured.

“There were five doctors to whom she explained her condition, and her former physician, and they all said they had no explanation why this should have gone away,” Fr. Preuss said.

In a blessed coincidence — or perhaps not — Fr. Solanus himself suffered from a skin disease, which ultimately caused his death in 1957.

“I’m sure Fr. Solanus said, ‘I know what this is like,’ and decided to show mercy upon her,” Fr. Preuss mused.

Race toward sainthood

Bro. Richard Merling, OFM Cap., vice postulator for the beatification cause of Fr. Solanus Casey, reads some of the hundreds of letters received by the Capuchins about favors and stories of the venerable Detroit friar. (Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

Fr. Solanus’ beatification — which will take place during a yet-to-be-announced Mass in Detroit later this year — is the final step before sainthood, which would require a second miracle attributed to Fr. Solanus’ intercession after he is made blessed.

Capuchin Fr. Michael Sullivan, provincial minister of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, said the friars are elated at the news, as is the rest of the city.

“Long before we knew and loved Pope Francis, we had the example of Fr. Solanus who lived the Gospel of Mercy,” Fr. Sullivan said. “Known for his compassion and simplicity, he drew many thousands to God. Rather than call attention to himself, he taught people to thank God for His blessings. We are overjoyed at the news that Fr. Solanus’ holiness is recognized by the Holy Father.”

For a time, it appeared Fr. Solanus had a chance to become the first U.S.-born man to be declared blessed, until Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom and approved the beatification of an Oklahoma City-born priest, Fr. Stanley Rother, in December 2016.

Fr. Solanus still has a chance to become the first U.S.-born male saint, however, a push that began almost immediately after the news conference had concluded, with Archbishop Vigneron and Fr. Sullivan reading an updated prayer for Fr. Solanus’ canonization and leading a procession to pray at the friar’s tomb.

Afterward, dozens of those in attendance processed past the tomb, pausing momentarily to touch the casket and leave handwritten prayer intentions atop Fr. Solanus’ resting place.

Fr. Solanus Casey is pictured in front of a church in this 1954 black-and-white photo.

“One of the advantages of having this occasion is that more and more people will be led to ask Father to pray for them, so it’s all the more likely that this will move forward,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Not only did Fr. Solanus teach others to thank God, but he often urged them to thank Him “ahead of time” even for the blessings they were yet to receive — an admonition adopted often by Archbishop Vigneron and others invoking the soon-to-be-blessed friar’s memory.

“I consider the gift that Father is to us here a sign of how much God cares about us, and that His care for us is unconditional,” Archbishop Vigneron told The Michigan Catholic, adding he has a personal devotion to the friar, “especially if I’m feeling as if I don’t know how to solve a problem.”

“I think about how many people have come to Fr. Solanus and received the advice of, ‘Trust God, it will all work out.’ Fr. Solanus helps me to be a better disciple, to have more trust in Jesus,” the archbishop said.

A simple man for a simple city

Archbishop Vigneron added the significance of Detroit getting its first “blessed” should not be overlooked.

“There are a lot of places in the world that have a lot of glory and a lot of glitz. We don’t,” the archbishop said. “We’ve been through some really difficult times, and sometimes I think we lose our confidence in ourselves or in God’s care for us. That God has confirmed Father’s holiness by this miracle, I take it as a confirmation of His eternal love for us. If I think of all the things we have to deal with, it’s just so important that God is on our side.”

Born Bernard Francis Casey on Nov. 25, 1870, Fr. Solanus was the sixth of 16 children to Irish immigrants Bernard James Casey and Ellen Elizabeth Murphy. He enrolled at St. Francis High School Seminary near Milwaukee in 1891, but because of academic limitations he was advised to consider joining a religious order instead.

A man pauses to pray at the tomb of Fr. Solanus Casey. (Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

After reflecting before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he felt the urging to “go to Detroit” and heeded this advice, joining the Capuchin order in 1897 and being given the religious name “Solanus.”

Although he continued to struggle academically, Fr. Solanus was at last ordained in 1904 by Milwaukee Archbishop Sebastian Messmer as a “simplex priest,” meaning he could celebrate Mass but could not preach doctrinal sermons or hear confessions.

After serving for two decades in friaries and churches in New York, Fr. Solanus was transferred back to Detroit in 1924, where he began working as the porter — or doorkeeper — of St. Bonaventure Monastery.

It was in this role — which eventually became the title of his 1968 biography written by James Patrick Derum (“The Porter of St. Bonaventure’s: The Life of Fr. Solanus Casey, Capuchin”) — that Fr. Solanus cemented his reputation for holiness and compassion. Charged with greeting those who came to the monastery’s doors, Fr. Solanus conducted well-attended services for the sick and became known for his gentle, wise counsel and genuine concern for those who sought his aid. He helped establish the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929 to feed the hungry during the Great Depression, a work that continues in Detroit today.

“I think Father’s humility is a sign of the Gospel truth that God works through the little ones,” Archbishop Vigneron said, adding Fr. Solanus’ “littleness” is reminiscent of the Blessed Virgin. “St. Paul says, ‘We’re just vessels of clay so that God can be glorified.’ Father’s life, to my mind, is proof that the New Testament didn’t end when the books were finished being written, but they continue today.”

Beginning the cause

By the time of his death on July 31, 1957, devotion to Fr. Solanus had grown to the point that more than 8,000 people attended his funeral — including those who traveled from afar to hear his guidance and keep his memory.

Overflow crowds flood the steps outside St. Bonaventure Monastery during the funeral of Fr. Solanus Casey in August 1957. More than 8,000 mourners came for the beloved friar's funeral.

“Over the years the fame of Fr. Solanus has extended around the world, and now has devotees in 27 countries,” said Capuchin Fr. Larry Webber, who along with Bro. Richard Merling is a vice postulator Fr. Solanus’ sainthood cause, in charge of collecting, reporting and promoting materials related to the friar’s life and reported miracles. “Thousands of favors attributed to the intercession of Venerable Solanus have been reported to the Office of the Cause for Sainthood of Father Solanus.”

Officials began collecting and organizing material for Fr. Solanus’ cause in 1976, and by 1983 an official archdiocesan investigation was opened into the life and virtues of Fr. Solanus. During this investigatory phase, 53 witnesses gave sworn testimony to his heroic virtues, and the next year their testimonies were sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

As part of the process, Fr. Solanus’ tomb was opened on July 8, 1987, and his remains were moved to their current resting place, a tomb inside the north transept of St. Bonaventure’s Chapel.

Led by Bro. Leo Wollenwebber, OFM Cap., a three-volume “positio” was presented to the Vatican congregation, which affirmed Fr. Solanus’ heroic virtues in 1995. A few months later, on July 11, 1995, Fr. Solanus Casey was named “venerable” by Pope John Paul II, allowing for public devotion and advancing the cause for beatification.

Twenty-one years later, that cause took its next step when, on Sept. 22, 2016, a panel of medical experts approved a miraculous healing attributed to Fr. Solanus, and a panel of theological advisers concurred on Jan. 19, 2017, paving the way for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to recommend Fr. Solanus’ beatification to Pope Francis.

Archbishop Vigneron and Fr. Michael Sullivan, OFM Cap., place prayer intentions on the tomb of Fr. Solanus Casey. (Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

Bro. Merling said the joyous announcement will reverberate in the Motor City and far beyond.

“This declaration means that the local Church, here in Detroit and in Capuchin Franciscan Fraternities around the world, may offer prayers and Masses invoking the intercession of Fr. Solanus,” Bro. Merling said.

It also means Fr. Solanus will join the roster of blesseds and will receive his own feast day, although it has not yet been announced.

While the Church in Detroit will celebrate Fr. Solanus’ beatification, the work of the Solanus Guild and the cause for canonization goes on as the postulators and Congregation for the Causes of Saints continue to examine other claims of favors received through Fr. Solanus’ intercession. Another miracle would be needed to pave the way for Fr. Solanus to be named a saint.

Ultimately, it is Fr. Solanus’ example of holiness and witness to the good news of salvation that constitutes the root of Detroit’s celebration of its first “blessed,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

“We are so grateful that because of this beatification, the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and the freedom He alone offers – will be proclaimed all the louder through Father Solanus,” stated Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron. “Let us, like Father Solanus, thank God ahead of time for all of these graces!”

History of Fr. Solanus Casey’s canonization cause

1958 – Fr. Gerald Walker, OFM Cap., provincial minister of the Detroit Capuchins, sends a report on the life and virtues of Fr. Solanus Casey to the general superiors in Rome.

1960 – The Fr. Solanus Guild is organized with the approval of provincial minister of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph to collect and organize information related to the life and ministry of Fr. Solanus.

1966 – Capuchin provincial sends an account of favors attributed to the intercession of Fr. Solanus to Rome. Capuchin Postulator General Fr. Bernardine of Siena appoints Fr. Paschal Siler, OFM Cap., to be vice postulator for the cause of canonization.

1968 – “The Porter of St. Bonaventure’s,” the first biography of Fr. Solanus Casey, is written by James P. Derum and published.

1974 – Bro. Leo Wollenweber, OFM Cap., succeeds Fr. Siler as vice postulator.

1976 – Cardinal John Dearden is asked to initiate cause for canonization of Fr. Solanus Casey and requests all writings attributed to Fr. Solanus be submitted. By 1980, Fr. Solanus’ assembled writings are declared free of doctrinal error.

1983 – Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka opens a diocesan investigation into the life and virtues of Fr. Solanus Casey. Fifty-three witnesses, priests, religious and laity give sworn testimony.

1987 – Exhumation and examination of Fr. Solanus’ body. His body was clothed in a new habit and re-interred in the north transept of St. Bonaventure’s chapel.

1995 – St. John Paul II proclaims Fr. Solanus Casey to have “heroic virtue” and bestows upon him the title “Venerable” on July 11, 1995.

2012 – After the death of Bro. Wollenweber, Capuchins Bro. Richard Merling and Fr. Larry Webber are appointed to the office of vice postulator, continuing the promotion of the cause and submitting new materials to Rome.

2016-17 – A panel of medical experts and a separate panel of theological advisers approve a miraculous healing attributed to Fr. Solanus, paving the way for approval by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. At the congregation’s recommendation, in May 2017, Pope Francis signs a decree declaring Fr. Solanus to be “blessed” and clearing the way for a beatification ceremony in Detroit later this year.

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