Solanus Casey: A Saint For East Harlem
Here at Our Lady Queen of Angels Convent in East Harlem, the chapel just got a fresh coat of paint. The faintest smell of paint lingers, but it will only be a matter of days before the fragrance of incense takes over again. Our chapel is on the second floor, and from my seat (back row, right side by the window), I have a perfect view of the playground and the metal slide that seems to provide abundant glee to children. Banging on it like a giant metal drum while screaming was one of the preferred playground activities—pre-pandemic, of course. I am not sure if actually sliding down the slide is as much fun. When Blessed Solanus Casey lived here on 113th Street, off 2nd Avenue, it was an Italian neighborhood and the “projects” that surround the convent were not here then; neither was the playground nor the metal slide. This convent building was inhabited by the Sisters of Saint Agnes who taught in Our Lady Queen of Angels School, which is still right where it was then, back-to-back with the convent. (The Agnesians are related to the Capuchins, who are part of the greater Franciscan family, which as you may know, has a very complicated “family tree” that most of us Franciscans don’t fully grasp.) It has been over nine decades since Blessed Solanus offered Holy Mass in our chapel. I wonder how many coats of paint it has had since then.
Blessed Solanus Casey was a skinny, spectacled priest with a Moses-like beard. Clad in the chestnut brown habit with the long, pointed hood of the Capuchins, with a bald head, sandaled feet, and a cincture with three knots holding the whole outfit together, Solanus looked just like one would expect a Capuchin friar to look. He had the appearance, as did all of his confrères, of one perpetually posing for a holy card. The only difference between him and the other friars in his friary is that there are holy cards of Fr. Solanus Casey. Beatified on November 18, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, the humble Capuchin who lived right here on 113th Street is on his way to being declared a saint of the Holy Catholic Church. What causes one to go on to become a recognized, canonized saint? Fr. Solanus, the priest without the faculties to preach or hear confessions, the priest who failed Latin in seminary, the priest who trained the altar boys and answered the door, is being singled out for recognition and emulation. More than anything, the answer to who gets holy cards minted and statues made boils down to God’s prerogative exercised through Holy Mother Church. But, naturally, there are common denominators among canonized saints, and characteristics that are specially looked for…not miracles nor oracles, not signs or wonders; rather, “heroic sanctity” is the cherished trait. “Heroic” makes us think of someone accomplishing out of the ordinary feats to the point of self-sacrifice, and “sanctity” connotes one who has been purified and conformed to Christ. When a person allows himself to undergo the transformation that surrender yields, he is sanctified.
Specifically, Solanus exhibited this generic-sounding “heroic sanctity” in very specific ways: faithfulness to his duties, day in and day out; deep concern for the poor and the people that came to the friary door; and a habitual sense of gratitude that permeated his whole spirituality. It might sound overly simple and hardly worthy of universal recognition, but try it yourself and then decide if daily, unwavering fidelity, deep self-sacrificing concern for total strangers, and being sincerely grateful all the time is so easy a task. These are a few of the characteristics that made Solanus stand out from his brothers, though it seems during his lifetime he didn’t stand out too much at all...except for all the miracles, that is. Solanus Casey had a reputation as a miracle worker, and there is little doubt that miracles did seem to accompany him. He attributed all the healings, conversions, reconciliations and other random favors received by the many people that sought him out to the fact that he enrolled them in the Seraphic Mass Association. All people enrolled were to pray for each other, and they were to give what they could to the missions. Maybe attributing all the good that happened to the Seraphic Mass Association was a humble way of deflecting praise, or maybe he was giving credit where credit was due. Prayer and almsgiving is a biblical prescription after all, and with the faith of a saint, he was doling out the medicine to great effect.
One thing about a recent saint like Solanus Casey is that by being close to us in time he is somehow more relatable. This closeness is fostered, too, by the fact that our very own
†Fr. Benedict Groeschel knew him and enjoyed recounting his personal experiences with
Fr. Solanus. Fr. Benedict liked to retell the bee story. It took place at the novitiate in Huntington, Indiana. The problem was that the bees were swarming and no one knew what to do. Fr. Benedict, who was a novice at the time, remembered that the bees were “so thick that their black form looked like a man in the tree,” and none of the friars seemed to be able to do anything about it. Fr. Solanus went outside with no mask or protective gear and, reaching right into the droning mass of bees, stuck his hand right into the hive and pulled out two queen bees. (There is only room for one queen per hive, naturally.) Taking the queen with his bare hands and delicately placing it in his handkerchief, the bees settled down, and peace was restored. It left a profound impression on the young Fr. Benedict. And so it is with the saints. It seems that by an acute knowledge of who they are and by deep listening to God, they seem to be able to go left or go right, do this or do that, with far less inner turmoil than the rest of us. They are given over. They are surrendered, and they are free.
When Fr. Solanus Casey’s full life was coming to a conclusion and he was suffering with his final illness, he sat up in bed and exclaimed, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” He was 86 years old. It was July 31, 1947.
The memorial of Blessed Fr. Solanus Casey is celebrated on July 30.
Mother Clare, CFR