On July 30, US Franciscans especially celebrate the feast day of Blessed Solanus Casey (1870-1957), a Capuchin friar noted for his deep prayer, compassion for the sick, and outreach to the poor.
Solanus was born Bernard (“Barney”) Casey to Irish immigrants Bernard and Ellen Casey on November 25, 1870, on a farm outside Oak Grove, Wisconsin, the sixth child of ten boys and six girls. He contracted diptheria as a child which permanently weakened his voice. At 16, Barney left the farm and worked at a series of jobs: lumberjack, hospital orderly, prison guard, and street car operator. While at work one evening, he witnessed a brutal murder. This caused him to re-evaluate his life, and in 1891 he decided to study for the priesthood.
Bernard and Elllen Casey at their 50th wedding anniversary in 1913 with their 14 living children. Fr Solanus is seated on the right in his Capuchin habit. Two of Solanus' brothers also were ordained priests.
Due to his lack of formal education, Barney had to begin at an early level. After struggling for some years, the Archdiocese suggested that he might do better in a religious order. After prayer, he chose the Capuchins, traveling to Detroit in 1896 to join; he was received in 1897 with the name Brother Francis Solanus (he and that saint both loved the violin). Studies in the Order were largely in German and Latin, which again handicapped Barney. When the time came for his ordination in 1904, the Order decided Solanus would remain a "simplex" priest, not permitted to preach formal sermons or hear confessions.
St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, where Fr. Solanus first studied to be a priest.
Solanus spent the first twenty years of his priesthood in the New York City area, serving as sacristan, director of the altar servers, and porter (receptionist) at the monastery. His kindness and practical wisdom at the friary door made an impression on people, and soon word spread about the “holy priest” who dispensed prayers of healing and wise counsel.
Fr. Solanus counseling a woman (1954).
In 1924, he was transferred to Detroit. There he became first known for his popular weekly services for the sick. Then, with the outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929, Solanus and other friars organized a soup kitchen that eventually served several thousand people daily. Although his official duties were humble, Fr. Solanus’ extraordinary spiritual gifts touched many, often people without any connection to religion.
Fr. Solanus working in the soup kitchen in Detroit.
As his health failed, Solanus went into semi-retirement in 1945 at the Capuchin novitiate in Indiana. In his final years he suffered from painful skin conditions. In his final illness he remarked: "I'm offering my suffering so that all might be one. If only I could see the conversion of the whole world."
At the end, he returned to his beloved Detroit, where he died in the hospital on July 31, 1957. Some 20,000 people filed past his coffin prior to his funeral. Fr. Solanus was declared “Venerable” in 1995 and was formally beatified in 2017.
St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, where Solanus lived and served for 21 years.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.