Father Michael Crosby, O.F.M. Cap.
I was appointed by the Vatican to write two of the three volumes that constituted the Positio for the Cause of the Canonization of the Servant of God, Solanus Casey. He was a Capuchin Franciscan friar who was assigned to St. Michael’s in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn between July, 1945 and April, 1946. My task was to show how he evidenced “heroic virtue” in the practice of 15 virtues. It was his response to hearing that he was being transferred to St. Michael’s that evidenced quite a heroic approach to the way he practiced one of those virtues: obedience. But, before I elaborate on his path to Brooklyn, I want to set the context for the life of a wonderful Capuchin whom Pope John Paul II named as the first man born in the U.S. to be called “Venerable.”
Solanus is the religious name that Bernie Casey received upon entering the Capuchins of the St. Joseph Province. Its territory covered the area from Wisconsin in the West to New York in the East. The Provincial house was midway, in Detroit.
Bernie was born Nov. 25, 1870; the sixth of 16 children of Irish immigrants on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. This was his first mistake; that side of the Mississippi was under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Milwaukee and its official language was German. Less than 30 minutes away was the Diocese of St. Paul with its official language being English. With a name like Casey you can imagine which diocese would have been easy to prepare to be a priest!
In past years, Bernie Casey also would be considered a late vocation. With only a grade school education, this young farmer had taken a variety of jobs in Wisconsin and Minnesota. These ranged from being a prison guard to a quarry worker. On a late fall day in 1891 while at work as a streetcar conductor in Superior, Wisc., he had a powerful experience that changed his life. The streetcar came to a quick stop because a very inebriated sailor was assaulting a woman on the tracks.
This experience of violence led Bernie to consider a way to keep such violence from occurring; sensing a call to make the world better he sought out his parish priest. The pastor suggested he go to seminary. However the seminary would not be St. Thomas Seminary in St. Paul but St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee where German was spoken.
The young Irishman was not good at German nor was his disposition ordered to the disciplined way of learning that language. This contributed to only average to below-average grades. Although popular with his fellow seminarians because of his cheap haircuts and baseball skills (where he refused to wear his catcher’s mask), the seminary superiors told him they thought he could not be a priest but that he might try to be a brother in a religious order.
This led him to inquire about the Capuchin Franciscans at St. Francis Friary in the heart of Milwaukee. He did not like what he saw: friars who not only wore beards but ones who also spoke German. However, on Dec. 8, 1896, the day he finished a discerning litany as to which religious order he should join, he not only decided to make a private vow of chastity, he heard the words: “Go to Detroit.” This meant he would join the Capuchins who housed their novitiate at the headquarters there. He arrived there Christmas Eve, 1896. Upon entering the novitiate a few weeks later, he took the name Francis Solanus, to be known thereafter as Solanus Casey.
Because of his inability to master German, the superiors decided they would ordain him but not give him faculties, i.e., the permission to hear confessions or preach formal sermons. Unlike another Irish classmate who was told he would be such a “simplex priest,” Solanus never challenged the decision. He remained a simplex priest for the rest of his life.
Being unable to hear confessions (a main ministry for priests in those days), upon his ordination in 1904, Solanus was assigned to Sacred Heart parish in Yonkers, 1904-18; Our Lady of Sorrows on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1918-21; and Queen of Angels, Harlem, 1921-24. However, unable to hear confessions relegated Solanus to taking care of the sacristy and then, later, serving as porter or doorkeeper.
In 1923, Father Solanus was abruptly transferred to the headquarters of the Province in Detroit to serve as assistant porter. However, almost immediately the front office had to be expanded because of the ever-increasing numbers of people who came to him with their problems. More and more people were attributing healing to his intercession. For his part, Solanus would thank God for the healing which he attributed to the SMA membership or the use of other sacramentals which he promoted.
The people’s many health problems took another form in 1929 when the car companies started laying off workers. New needs were revolving around hunger and family economics. Solanus joined the efforts of the Secular Franciscans’ Soup Kitchen in meeting these needs (which today serves over 2,000 people each day of the week). He would get the people involved in this ministry, saying: “I have two loves: the sick and the poor.”
Solanus’ life at St. Bonaventure’s in Detroit found him skirting controversy. While in New York, he was known as a promoter of the “Irish Cause” of liberation from British Rule; in Detroit he became a devotee of the “Radio Priest,” Father Charles Coughlin. While not subscribing to Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants, Solanus did agree that not enough concern was being shown the poor.
A second source of difficulties with the hierarchy came in his promotion of the four-volume set of works by Mary of Agreda called Mystical City of God. He was convinced that the Blessed Virgin had dictated her recollections of her life with Jesus to Mary of Agreda and found much value in praying over the volumes. However, because he recommended that people read the volumes some people felt they should buy them. The salesman, a friend of Solanus, was considered by some to be benefitting unduly. This led to involvement by the Chancery in Detroit and contributed to his transfer to Brooklyn.
Upon arrival from a vacation that took him to the West Coast, on July 22, 1945, he was told of his transfer. Without a protest he accepted this “obedience” (as such was called in those days) and left the next day for Brooklyn. While people in Detroit were dismayed and upset by his quick transfer, his only response was to thank God for “this new assignment of privileged duty.”
Once at St. Michael’s, word quickly spread in the area about the wonders wrought through the prayers and work of Solanus Casey. One of these was Ruth Keck, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s, Brooklyn. When she was given the understanding that she had cancer, she went to see Solanus. Her son (the future Capuchin, Barnabas Keck) recalls: “So she went to the friary and waited in line. When my mother’s turn came, Father Solanus said, ‘And what’s your problem, dear?’” When she told him “I think I have cancer.” He simply responded: “‘Don’t you know God can cure cancer just like a toothache?’ So she knelt down and he put his hand on her and blessed her, praying over her.” He concludes: “She went home and never went back to the doctor and was 80 years old” when Father Barnabas repeated the story in 1983.
Because of stories like this, St. Michael’s became deluged with visits and phone calls for Solanus. Consequently it was decided he should be “officially” retired. So he was transferred to the House of Philosophy in Huntington, Ind. He stayed there until sickness returned him in 1956 to St. Bonaventure’s, where he died on July 31, 1957. An estimated 20,000 people came to pay final respects.
The heroic virtue of obedience to God in all things, including the present moment and its difficulties was wonderfully summarized in a note he wrote while in Brooklyn:
“Why should we worry about anything? Tumors? Cancers? Death? Why not rather turn to God, whose solicitude for our individual welfare, temporal as well as spiritual, puts all created solicitude out of the picture. Why not foster confidence in his Divine Province by humbly and in all childlike humility venture to remind him in the person of our divine Brother Jesus that we are his children. We should remind him that we are, and at least want to be reckoned as among his ‘little ones.’ Therefore, we should thank him frequently for not only the blessing of the past and present, but thank him ahead of time for whatever he foresees is pleasing to him that we suffer. We should do this not only in general but in each particular case. We should leave everything absolutely to his divine disposal, including with all its circumstances, when, where, and how he may be pleased to dispose the event of our death.”[hr] Father Crosby is a Capuchin Franciscan living in Milwaukee. The Positio he wrote on Solanus Casey for the Vatican is available as “Solanus Casey: The Official Account of a Virtuous American Life” (Crossroad Publishing Company). His original biography of Solanus is “Thank God Ahead of Time: The Life and Spirituality of Venerable Solanus Casey” (St. Anthony Press).