Two simple, holy doorkeepers
This Saturday, along with Fr. Richard Fragomeni, I will have the privilege of being commentator for the Beatification Mass of Capuchin Friar Solanus Casey
in Detroit’s Ford Field. Over 70,000 people are expected to attend this historic celebration for one of the most beloved priests in America. I first learned about Solanus’s life in the early 1980’s when I was a Basilian novice in the inner-city of Detroit. I shall never forget our visits to St. Bonaventure Monastery and the Fr. Solanus Center on Detroit’s Eastside. The peacefulness of the chapel and center always struck me: it was a kind of spiritual oasis in the midst of a very busy and difficult neighborhood. I cannot forget the long lines of Detroit’s poor awaiting their daily meal at the Soup Kitchen. I began reading about the life of this remarkable Capuchin Friar who had spent his life in service of the poor: a humble porter at the monastery’s front door, welcoming people of every age, size, color, religion and walk of life. Solanus was ready to listen to anyone 24/7. I realized that his fame, reputation, ‘odor of holiness’ was widespread. Over the years I have met many people who knew Fr. Solanus personally. They all related the same story: this humble Capuchin doorkeeper demonstrated that an ordinary person can live an extraordinarily faithful life. He saw each person as loved by God and called to share in God’s life.
Who was this man?
Solanus was born Bernard Francis Casey on November 25, 1870 on a farm near Oak Grove, Wisconsin. He was the sixth child in a family of ten boys and six girls born to Irish immigrant parents. Bernard left the farm to work throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota as a logger, hospital orderly, street car operator, and prison guard. At the age of 21 Bernard entered St. Francis High School Seminary in Milwaukee to study for the diocesan priesthood. Five years later he contemplated a religious order. Invested in the Capuchin Order at Detroit in 1897, he received the religious name of Solanus. He struggled through the seminary largely because most of the classes were conducted in the German language which he had never formally studied. On July 24, 1904, at the age of 33, Solanus Casey was ordained to the priesthood in St. Francis of Assisi Church in Milwaukee. Because his superiors and formators judged him to have performed poorly in his seminary studies, Casey was ordained a sacerdos simplex
, a priesthood rank that prevented him from hearing confessions or preaching doctrinal sermons.
During the fourteen years he served at Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers, New York, Solanus fulfilled the humble duties of Sacristan and Doorkeeper besides those of Director of the Young Ladies Sodality, Director of Altar Boys, and other pastoral duties. Solanus edified his parishioners by his prayerful example at Mass, by his great charity toward the sick, the children, the non-Catholics and the poor. The sick especially were anxious for his priestly visits and consolation. His ministry to the sick and to the poor continued elsewhere as well. He was appointed to Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in New York City in 1918 and then to Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Harlem in 1921.
He was appointed in 1924 to the Capuchin Friary of St. Bonaventure in Detroit, where he would remain for 20 years. Fr. Solanus became known and loved by all. His ministry of charity and comfort was especially noted during the great Depression of 1929 when his concern for the poor inspired the Detroit Capuchins to establish their Soup Kitchen, a service of charity that continues to this day. The Soup Kitchen began during the Great Depression of 1929, a period of devastating national poverty that caused the poor of Detroit’s community to flock to St. Bonaventure Monastery, knock on the back door and beg for bread.
“They are hungry; get them some soup and sandwiches,” Fr. Solanus would say to his confrères. Over the following months, the lines of poor people grew to 2,000 people per day waiting for their single meal of the day. Fr. Solanus greeted each person and the door and welcomed the homeless and hungry into his heart. He fed their bodies but also nourished their spirits.
The meeting of two holy doorkeepers
During the summer of 1935, two holy doorkeepers met in Detroit. It was an historic meeting of Brother André Bessette, who had travelled from Montreal down through the Ontario and across the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit. André had heard about another holy doorkeeper on Detroit’s Eastside. At the time, Fr. Solanus was 65 and Brother André was 90. Both men worked for many years as porters or doorkeepers, helping those who were visitors at their respective religious orders’ seminaries and monasteries: one in the inner-city of Detroit and the other on Montreal’s Mount Royal. Both men worked long days as many came to see them at all hours of the day and night with stories of brokenness, failure, abandonment and loss. Eventually the Holy Cross Fathers in Montreal built a chapel for Brother André on one of Montreal’s highest peaks. They had hoped the thousands attracted by André would be deterred by the rugged climb. They were not and many more thousands came each year.
If ever two people had the right to complain about their treatment by leaders of their religious communities, it was certainly Fr. Solanus and Holy Cross Brother André. Ironically, the two consecrated men put their Religious Congregations on the map (at least in North America) with attention, interest and vocations. There is no film footage or still photos of that historic meeting of the two doorkeepers in Detroit. How I wish I had been there to witness and even cover that historic encounter of the two doorkeepers. The meeting took place with little fanfare and hardly anyone would have even noticed what was happening as they embraced and prayed together. Eye witnesses said that they spoke few words but prayed together and blessed each other in Latin. Brother André returned to Montreal and would die within two years – in 1937. Brother André was proclaimed Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Fr. Solanus would continue his work for some 20 years after meeting Brother André in 1935. During the years of 1941-1945 Fr. Solanus' advice and prayers aided many anxious families whose children served in World War II. In the later years of his life, Solanus’ Capuchin Superiors wished to give him a well-earned retirement and sent him to the Friary of St. Felix in Huntington, Indiana in the spring of 1946. There he spent his time in prayer and ministry to the sick and troubled until his own infirmities brought him back to Detroit for special medical care. During Solanus’ final illness he remarked, "I'm offering my sufferings that all might be one. If only I could see the conversion of the whole world." His last conscious act was to sit up and exclaim, "I give my soul to Jesus Christ." Fr. Solanus died on July 31, 1957 at the age of 86. He is buried at the Capuchin Friary in Detroit.
Fr. Solanus’ cause for sainthood was opened in 1982. In 1995, Pope John Paul II declared Solanus Casey to be venerable, the second step in the path to sainthood. Many miraculous cures have been associated with Fr. Solanus’s intercession, both when he was alive and after his death. Pilgrims from around the world continue to make pilgrimages to the tomb of Fr. Solanus Casey.
The epic funerals of two great doorkeepers
Brother André and Fr. Solanus had funerals that would today be considered epic. Not only were they remembered by the thousands who attributed the healing to their prayer, but the many thousands and in Brother Andre’s case the nearly one million who became quite familiar with the stories. Not only were extra trains added by the Canadian rail authorities, but even in the US, especially the Northeast extra cars were added to accommodate the mourners headed to Montreal for Brother Andre’s funeral.
André and Solanus came into this world with little fanfare, and despite their gifts of healing, they would continue living that way their entire lives. However, because of their humility God gave them a gift that the richest among us would be envious of having, the gift of healing. Because of this, they may have taught us all that humility and obedience, while poorly considered in our times, is one of God’s greatest joys.
Both André Besette and Solanus Casey were porters, doorkeepers and guides. They opened doors for people. Solanus was a very simple man and simple priest; not a man of letters although he sometimes wrote like a poet; not a man of degrees, yet his thought reached to profound depths. Like a prophet, he was a man with a message for our times. He lived a life concerned for God's people, suffering and laboring for the conversion of sinners. His message, always one of faith and trust in God, was to console and to encourage. This Saturday November 18, in a major sports stadium in Detroit, the simple priest Solanus Casey will be proclaimed ‘Blessed’ on the path to sainthood.
It is about humble persons such as André Bessette and Solanus Casey that Pope Francis speaks in these powerful words from Evangelii Gaudium #47
“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
In his day, Fr. Solanus was a porter on Detroit’s Eastside. Now he is one of heaven’s special gatekeepers. He left us a powerful example of how to welcome strangers, the homeless, sick, poor and hungry into our communities. Some will come to our doors rejoicing, and others in fear; some will come healed and others to seek that healing. Some will come starving for good, others will come with full stomachs but empty hearts. The important thing is that we open doors and build bridges to those who come, instead of erecting obstacles and barriers.
I would love to be there when Solanus and André embrace in heaven on Saturday! I can only imagine the tenderness of that embrace and the depth of sharing that would take place when these two remarkable, holy North American doorkeepers renew their friendship and share their stories of how God used them to bless and feed, love and forgive, encourage and heal millions of people.
St. André of Montreal and Blessed Solanus of Detroit: Pray for us!