Could This Wisconsin Man Become the First American-born Saint?

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.

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.

“Barney” Casey (top row, third from left) and his family; photo courtesy of Father Solanus Guild/OFM Capuchins (Casey family)

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.

Paula Medina Zarate at Father Casey’s beatification; photo via AP Images

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.”

American Saints

Only two of the 10,000 persons the Catholic Church currently venerates as saints were born in America. Elizabeth Ann Seton, born in New York in 1774, was the first to be canonized, so honored by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Seton founded the first American congregation of religious sisters. In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized the first saint born a citizen of the United States: Katherine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress and nun who dedicated her life to working with the Native American and African American communities in the Southwest.

A handful of naturalized citizens and persons recognized for their work in the U.S. also have been recognized as saints. Still, that’s not many Americans in the canon. “The number is small but growing,” says Marquette University history professor Steven Avella. “Compared to the rest of the church, we are youngsters here in the U.S.”

Solanus Casey is only the fourth American-born person who currently holds “Blessed” title. Another American beatified in 2017, Oklahoma-born priest Stanley Rother, is considered a good candidate for sainthood as a martyr. Rother was murdered while doing missionary work in Guatemala in 1981 at age 46, a crime that Pope Francis later declared to be an act done “in hatred of the faith.”

‘Saint Solanus?’ appears in the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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