On the Road with the Sisters: Bl. Solanus Casey

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This week the CultureCast, is proud to introduce a new show: “On the Road with the Sisters.” In the ensuing episodes, On the Road With The Sisters will be taking you all over the world to experience God’s presence among us; A visual pilgrimage of the human story to seek the divine in all things! Come with us and discover the many spaces, places and people who inspire all to seek the grandeur of God. In this first Episode, Sr.Teresa Benedicta and Sr. Martin Therese take us to Detroit, Michigan to visit the shrine of Blessed Solanus Casey as we learn how Blessed Solanus Casey had confidence and trust in God, thanked Him ahead of time and expected miracles in his Vocation!

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Welcome to On the Road with the Sisters. I’m Sister Teresa Benedicta.

Sister Martin Therese: 

I’m Sister Martin Therese. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

We’d like to travel with you to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is known for its industries, the all-American cars, the rise of the little man to the top, so it’s appropriate that today we’re going to visit the shrine of Blessed Solanus Casey, who was canonized at Ford Field in Detroit. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

I grew up in Canada on the other side of the Detroit River. Fr. Solanus Casey was literally an hour from my home. Obviously, I wasn’t alive, but I don’t know much about him except from the footage from his beatification. We went and saw everything, but I don’t necessarily know about everything that we saw. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

What we didn’t get to see is important too. His parents were Irish immigrants, and they came over to the United States as a result of the Irish Potato Famine in hope of a better future. Ellen and Bernard, Solanus Casey’s parents, met each other when Ellen was 16 and Bernard was 20. It was love at first sight. Bernard knew that was the girl he was going to marry. He proposed to her, and Ellen’s parents said, “No way. She’s too young to get married,” and immediately found a convenient relative several states away. Bernard waits till she turns 18 and then tries writing. He wants to keep up that relationship, but the letters aren’t getting through, so he goes to his parish priests in Boston and explains that he’s in love with this wonderful Catholic girl and could he recommend him. His parish priests in Boston writes her parish priest several states away. The two priests get them reconnected, and at that point the family realized this is meant to happen. They married during the Civil War, and they had several children and eventually decided to move to Wisconsin and start a farm. Blessed Solanaus Casey was born in Wisconsin on the farm. He was the sixth of 16 children, ten boys, six girls. Two of the daughters died one year where the family got diphtheria. Fr. Solanus had diphtheria too, and his voice was always a little raspy and weak as a result. He had a speech impediment because of that.

Sister Martin Therese: 

I don’t know about diphtheria. What is that? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

It is an infection that attacks your throat and can move down your lungs into your heart. It’s one of the booster shots to get as a kid to help prevent you from getting it. In those days you didn’t have the vaccine, it was deadly. Two of his sisters died. He received it but did not die. He makes it through. What a hard time to be alive. In many ways his childhood sounds almost idyllic. They’re on this farm in Wisconsin overlooking the Mississippi River. They would go swimming, hunting, fishing, and skating. In the evening, the family would get together and tell each other stories. They would read great literature out loud. They prayed every evening the family rosary. The kids always spoke about that time on the farm as a wonderful memory. If you remember in the museum, we saw a photograph of their family all together at the 50th Anniversary of their farm. It’s a fun story at that anniversary. They were talking about the farm, and one of the kids said, “I wish we could go back to those days,” and without skipping a beat the mom replied, “Thank God it’s over” because she’s thinking 16 kids, no electricity, life on a farm, wondering how ends meet. It was hard, but what the kids remember was the love. They were loved, and they felt that and remembered it. 

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Sister Martin Therese: 

Did she homeschool her children? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Their education was patchy, particularly when they’re all on the farm. Even though Solanus was the sixth, he was still one of the older ones, so he was off working. When he was in high school, he was sent for a year to the big city where he worked in the sawmills for a while, so that meant he was 17 before he graduated from the eighth grade, which wasn’t that uncommon in those days. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

What happened after? We know he’s been beatified. I know when we went to see Maria Goretti, you could see the virtue from the get-go in her life and the stories about her. Was it the same with Solanus? Was he always a very virtuous young man? What’s his personality like in terms of living the Faith?

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

You know when guests come to visit and your family has stories they always tell about you? Blessed Solanus has those. They’d always tell about the time he got angry at a sister and threw the fork at her. He got in big trouble for throwing the fork and some say he struggled with patience. He struggled with self-control, so he wasn’t a perfect kid by any means. He played baseball with his brothers. They formed their own baseball team. They called themselves The KC9, and Solanus was the catcher. He would not wear the catcher mitt. He did not wear the glove most of the time. It was like macho proving yourself. Even after he entered the monastery, the one thing his superiors would complain about him was that he wouldn’t wear all the safety gear because he was so used to being on the farm and playing the way he wanted to. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

He wasn’t a very big guy. At least, the pictures seem like he was petite. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Yeah, which is interesting because one of his first jobs was as a prison guard. He was the prison guard to the Jesse James gang and became good friends with one of the members of the Jesse James Gang who made him a wooden chest that he took with him when he entered the monastery. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

That’s one thing I wanted to see when we were there. Do you know what happened to it?

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

He kept it for a long time, but as he got older and was being transferred back and forth, it was one of the things he got rid of. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

What else did he do? He had some other jobs, but what about the trolley? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

The trolley was a big deal because electricity was coming to the United States at that time. He’s one of the first people that learns how to drive the electric trolley cars. That was a nice job. In fact, it paid so well, he convinced his family to leave the farm in Wisconsin and travel to the city and get jobs in the city, which they did which enabled the younger children to have a better education and more stable life. In any case, he was driving these trolley cars through the city. When he was 21, he drove into a rough section of the town and witnessed a murder. He saw a drunken sailor stab a woman repeatedly. The police came right away, but by the time they got there and established the peace, it was too late, and the woman died on the tracks. Solanus said that was a defining moment of his life because it was the first time he encountered violence and suffering. There was struggle in his life, but not brutality. It shook him to the core of his being, and he later said he felt this call from God. What are you doing about the suffering in the world? He thought God asking him to be a priest was another way to be a witness of the truth, someone who’s completely dedicated to service and to give one’s life to the building up of mankind. He knew at that point he wanted to be a priest. 

Before becoming a priest, Blessed Solanus Casey was a trolly car driver.

Sister Martin Therese: 

Was this an audible voice for him or is it just through his prayer life? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

That’s a good question because later in his life, he did sometimes have audible voices. I don’t know. It’s something we all dream of: God told me what to do. He knew at that point in time, so he applied to be a diocesan priest at the German Seminary. He spoke English. He’s Irish American, but most of the Catholics in the Wisconsin area at that time were German, so the Seminary was taught in their primary language, which was German, or in Latin, the language of the Church. His classes were in German or Latin. Remember he didn’t finish high school, so when he entered the diocesan seminary, he stood back into high school with boys who were much younger than him because he would have been in his 20s at this point. He was well liked. The younger boys he met at the seminary looked up to him. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Academics was never a strong point, at least not in different languages, right? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

He was a c student, which is an average grade, not a bad grade. I always tell my students if that’s all you can do, that’s great, but they looked at it differently in a sense. They said, “If you’re going to be a priest in America this time, you got to do better than a c,” so they asked them to leave the Seminary. They said, “We think you probably have a religious vocation. Maybe try monastic orders, but you’re not going to make it the Diocesan priest.” That was devastating for him because he’d heard this call from God say, “I want you to be a priest,” and yet the Church around him was saying, “No.” 

Sister Martin Therese: 

At this point, he throws in the towel and says, “Forget it. I’m just going to be a trolley driver forever,” right? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Thankfully he had some good friends write to religious communities. I think this was the beginning of Blessed Solanus’s spirituality because he always told people that whatever happens in life, God works for the good, and if we trust God, if we let Him work in our trials and our joys, He’s going to work everything out. He saw this as God had a bigger plan, and he had to trust Him, and the next step, which he was encouraged by friends, was write to religious communities. Maybe you’re meant to go there. He wrote to the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and the Capuchins, the one community he knew he did not want to be a part of because they were also German-speaking in that area at the time, and he just came from a Seminary doing German. In his own mind, he had ruled out the Capuchins, but he wrote to all three of them, and he received a favorable response from all three of them. He prayed a novena to Our Lady and on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He said he heard our Lady say, “Go to Detroit.” 

Sister Martin Therese: 

This was an audible voice. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

This is very clear. He couldn’t deny it. Go to Detroit. Detroit was the headquarters of the Capuchins. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Which is still there today? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Yes, that’s where his Shrine is. He went there, and it was Christmas time when he arrived. He looked at the monastery grounds and their winter is cold, gray, and miserable. He thought, “Why am I here? What are You thinking, God?” He felt zero desire to be a Capuchin. He was exhausted, and he still felt zero desire to be a Capuchin three weeks after he entered. He was supposed to formally receive the habit and become a part of the Capuchins, and he was debating with himself the entire time. “Is this really God’s will? I don’t feel anything. I don’t particularly want to be here.”

Sister Martin Therese: 

How did he know then? If I was feeling that way, I’d probably think, “This is stupid. I need to get out. This isn’t God’s will.” 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

I think he said he couldn’t deny what he knew in his previous prayer. He was told to go to Detroit, so he decided to receive the habit as an act of trust. When he did, from that moment he felt peace. He never again doubted. He took that leap of faith to trust that God would give him the Grace, and God did. Here he is, a newly ordained novice sent back to Seminary in German and Latin still, and he still is a C student. That caused a lot of problems among his local superiors. In fact, both before he made his first vows and then his final vows, he had a sign a formal document to say: “I’m a meager student. I lack academic abilities. If I’m never ordained a priest, I understand, and I accept I’m here to be a Capuchin, not necessarily to be a priest. Whatever my superiors decide, I accept.” 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Could you imagine that today? That wouldn’t happen. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

For him, it is this great sign of trust. Whatever God wills. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to do God’s will, not my own. Eventually they did decide to ordain him. When we visited the shrine, the chapel has this huge painting of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata. When they decided to ordain him, the headquarters of the Capuchins was in Rome. All the different Capuchin communities had given the permission for Solonus to be ordained with no restrictions like any other priest, but the local Superior said his German was still bad. He still had a speech impediment. We’re not comfortable with him doing all of what a normal priest would do, so they restricted his priesthood where he could not give homilies at mass and could not hear confessions.

Sister Martin Therese: 

He would say the mass. He was a priest, but he was going to be doing lesser jobs. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

That’s where we tended to hear of him. His main work was to be a doorkeeper. He would answer the door and bring in guests. Pictures show lines and lines of people waiting to see him. They would normally have five or ten guests a day, and Father would show up, and they would have 200 guests. He became well-known because people would come to him and ask for prayers, and he had a very common response to everyone. “Thank God ahead of time. Whatever it is you’re asking, thank God for it. Whatever He’s going to answer, whether it’s a yes or no, it’s going to be good. As a sign of your gratitude, do something to show God that you appreciate His answer.” He’d ask people to either attend Mass more or work in the soup kitchen or say a couple prayers or something concrete to show they were grateful. Thank God. Show Him in your actions and then see what God does. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

One story I loved when we were there. We met Brother Richard Merlin, and he was telling us this story. He knew Father Solanus when he was young. His brother had been in a serious car accident, and they thought they’d have to amputate his leg. If you remember, Brother Richard said that he and his mom went to go see Father Solanus about this and begged him for healing for her son/his brother, and Father Solanus wryly said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” The next day the mom brought Brother Richard’s brother back to the doctors, and the doctors were looking at the x-rays again and said, “I don’t think we’re going to have to amputate after all.” Those stories were so common with Father Solanus. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

I also loved how Brother Richard, who’s watched his brother be healed, joins the same community and then was later made Vice Postulate, so he had a key role in helping with Solanus Casey’s beatification. There’s so many stories, but by the time Father Solanus died, there were seven notebooks of over 6,000 recorded miracles and prayers answered through his intercession, and that wasn’t even all of them. Everyone has a miracle story with him. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Tell the story with the notebooks. Father Solanus was only writing these down because he was asked to by his superiors, but then as he was getting older, it was getting harder for him, right?

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

One of the other Friars was asked to continue writing these down. The secretary said, “There’s too many miracles,” so he began throwing them away. “I don’t want to keep all these Miracles. They’re all kind of the same.” He prayed; they got an answer. The ice cream miracle is one of my favorites because it’s probably one of the most famous. One of the novices had had a root canal done 10 years before he entered the monastery. They thought everything was fine. He’s now a novice. He’s starting to have problems in his tooth. He goes to the dentist, and it turns out where the work was done had gotten infected under the gums. They were trying to drain it, and it becomes clear that the infection has gone down to the bone. The dentist tries everything he can and finally says, “It’s eating away at the bone. The only thing we can do right now is surgery, and it’s going to remove part of the jawbone,” so to replace it it’s a big deal, especially in those times. Unfortunately, if a novice had a major surgery, it meant he would have to leave the community, and the community didn’t have the means to pay for that, so when the brother came back to the monastery, he was devastated because he was seeing his vocation and his future drastically change. Father Solanus sees him and realizes he’s upset, and he asks the novice what’s wrong. The novice explains the situation to him, and Father Solanus says, “Why don’t you kneel down and pray with me,” so the brother kneels down, and Father Solanus puts his hand on the jawbone and prays, and when he finished praying, he looks at the brother and said, “I think your dentist is going to be surprised. I don’t think you need to worry about this anymore.” The brother said that immediately after the prayers happened, he felt he was healed. He knew it was taken care of. He went back to the dentist and sure enough, nothing was there. The dentist was so flabbergasted. He made the brother come back four or five times because he wanted to keep checking. He couldn’t be sure if it was really all gone. After the last time, the novice came back to tell Father Solanus Casey the good news.

Sister Martin Therese: 

Now Father Solanus is sitting on his desk, the one that I got to sit at and touch. What happens if he’s at his desk?

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Earlier that day, as he’s receiving visitors to the monastery, someone wanted to thank Father Solanus, so he bought Father Solanus some ice cream, but Father Solanus was really busy, so he stuffs the ice cream into his desk. It’s Detroit. It’s summertime. It’s hot and humid with no air conditioning. One of the other brothers witnessed it, and he thought he was going to forget about it. It’s going to be melted. He was feeling like this is a sad occasion because it’s ice cream, and it’s been destroyed in the desk.

Sister Martin Therese: 

We tried opening the drawer. I wanted to see if there’s still something, but it’s all locked up. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

In any case, the other brothers saw it. Fast forward several hours. The novice has returned. He’s telling the good news to Father Solanus, and Father Solanus says, “This calls for a celebration.” He opens his desk drawer and pulls out the ice cream, perfectly frozen, not a single drop had melted. He passed it to the brother who had witnessed it earlier himself, and they all enjoy the ice cream together. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

I don’t know that I would eat that though. Honestly after sitting in a desk drawer, even though it wasn’t melted. It looks fine and everything. So lots of miracles and thank God ahead of time. One thing that struck me as you were speaking is this idea of always thanking God. We ask for things and to trust Him and to thank Him ahead of time. Since we’ve been there, I’ve started to do that, and it’s amazing. It does increase your faith in some ways. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

There’s a story that sums it up for me. The Provincial in Detroit had asked Father Solanus to pray for a situation that involved the friary that he felt was going to be a tragedy if it hadn’t been whatever the situation was. Father Solanus said, “Absolutely. I’ll be praying for it. Everything will be okay.” A week passed, and everything wasn’t okay. The situation got worse, and as the Provincial was passing by Father Solanus in the hallway, looks at him, and says, “Are you really praying, Father?” Father Solanus says, “Of course, I’m praying.” A few minutes later, he follows the provincial into his room. The provincial said that when Father Solanus came in, he had tears pouring down his face. He looked at the provincial and said, “Father Gerald, I’m so disappointed in you.” You know that pit in your stomach, what did I do wrong? The Provincial asked, “What’s wrong?” Father Solanus says, “Where is your faith? Christ promised whatever you ask Me, I will do.” The superior said that that was such an important lesson to him. He did get his miracle in fact, so the prayers worked, but it was such an important lesson to him that God can work to the extent that we allow Him to work. Like Saint Peter walking on the water, when we stop trusting God, part of the reason we don’t see more miracles is because we don’t have the faith for them to happen. When we surrender our lives to God and trust Him, God can do so much in our lives. That’s what Blessed Solanus said over and over and over again. Not that God always does what we want. Sometimes the better answer is no. But if we’re willing to allow God to work in our life, if we expect the miracle, they really do happen.

Sister Martin Therese: 

You say that and that’s very striking to me because Father Solanus, for all intents and purposes, there wasn’t anything special about him. He was an ordinary man. If anything, because of his high voice and his terrible violin playing, there was a lot to poke fun at, yet here emerges this man, this priest who trusts in God, and all these great miracles happen. That speaks to the fact that that’s possible for each of us. He taught the people that as they were coming to him in line. God desires to give you what you want in accord with His will. He desires our happiness, and I think Father Solanus is a real good example of that.

Fr. Solanus Casey serving food at one of his soup kitchens

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

I like that Father Solanus was a blend between prayer and action. People talk about his deep prayer life. The brothers would say often in the morning, they would come to the chapel and find Father Solanus asleep on the wooden steps of the altar. Brother Richard told us a story. They would wake Father Solanus up in the morning and say, “Father, you shouldn’t be sleeping on this hardwood,” and he would laugh and say, “I slept on the soft side.” He had this rich prayer life, and they would catch him in prayer and contemplation. It was founded on this personal real relationship, but he also is very practical. He lives during the Great Depression. He’s responsible for the first soup kitchens that came into Detroit. The two biggest soup kitchens still in existence in Detroit are successors of the soup kitchen he founded. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understood that when Brother Richard was talking to us in the very spot that we were talking to him in a little courtyard is where the very first soup kitchen was and then after his death, they had to move it, so they moved it across the street, but it’s the same. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Yeah. What was also beautiful is they’ve turned the spot where the old soup kitchen was into the shrine today. Father Solanus’s tomb, which pilgrims come and pray at and can visit today, is right where that soup kitchen was. Even in his death, he is still feeding people. Great miracles happened there. Another favorite story of mine is from during the Depression when they ran out of food, and there were 300 people still in line. They went to Father Solanus and said, “Help. What do we do? They’re all waiting for bread. We don’t have anything.” Father Solanus came over and said to everyone, “God loves us. We just have to trust the father. He’s not going to let us starve.” He let everyone in, praying the Our Father, and when he finished, a truck pulled up full of food for the last 300 men. They said that some of them were crying tears down their face. It was that confidence that God’s here in very practical ordinary things, whether it be ice cream or food, and He’s here in our prayer life, and He’s present. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

The other thing I was going to ask is about his death. The reason I bring this up is because we had the great opportunity of going into the little chapel where he said his last Mass the day before he died or the day of, I can’t remember. What were the circumstances surrounding his death? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

He’s working as a doorkeeper, and he was getting a lot older and becoming more and more difficult. As it became harder and harder to see guests when he would get tired, he would duck under his desk and lie there and take a 15 to 20 minute catnap, and then pop back up when he was ready to leave. 

Sister Martin Therese trying out Fr. Solanus’s napping spot.

Sister Martin Therese: 

We tried that. I’m much younger than 80 years old, and the idea of him crouching under that I was like, he was tiny, and secondly, he could sleep anywhere in any position. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

That was a sign to the brothers that it’s time for him to retire and not be a doorkeeper. They moved him to New York, but literally within days of his coming, there were so many people coming to see him, so they moved him to Huntington, Indiana, which was more secluded, but people were still making pilgrimages down to see him. In his last years of his life, he had a letter-writing apostolate, but he was more protected. He got more and more elderly, and he had a terrible skin condition, so they moved him back to Detroit to the hospital and into hospice for the last year of his life for a lot of that time. They were trying not to let anyone know that he was returned, but in his last days, they knew he was reaching the end. It was time to put him into hospice, so his last mass was in that room and they saved his vestments. Finally, he was in the hospital, and the nurses loved him there. He had such a profound Faith. They would ask him, “Where’s it hurt,” and he’d say, “All over, but praise God, our Lord suffered this too. If I could suffer like that.” His peace and his last words. A nurse was holding him in her arms. She had actually given him a bath, but she had him in her arms, and she said he sat up and looked up towards the heavens and said, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” Those were the last words he uttered before he died this beautiful peaceful death. After his death, people began making pilgrimages to his tomb, and miracles kept happening. He wasn’t just a witness of trust while he lived. He continued to be that witness even after he’s gone because, of course, he continues to live in heaven. 

Sister Martin Therese (Left) and Sister Teresa Benedicta (Right) praying at Blessed Solanus Casey’s tomb

Sister Martin Therese: 

What is the takeaway from him? If you were to say it in one sentence.

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Confidence and trust in God. Thank God ahead of time and expect miracles. 

Sister Martin Therese: 

Blessed Solanus Casey, pray for us.


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