On a hot July morning in 1987, Holy Names Sister Anne Herkenrath stood by the grave of her great-uncle Father Solanus Casey, who had been buried 30 years previously. The cause for his canonization had recently begun, and Sister Anne was one of two family members invited to witness the exhumation of his body at the Capuchin Monastery in Detroit, Mich.
As the casket was lifted and water began to drain from the inside, everyone dreaded the worst. But when the casket was laid in the chapel and the lid was opened, the recognizable face of Father Solanus appeared. Describing her reaction to what seemed a miraculous sight, Sister Anne used one word: “Awesome.”
“He had had a terrible skin disease for a good part of his life,” she said, explaining the physical sufferings of Father Solanus, whose prayers have been credited with hundreds of healings both before and after his death. “His legs were smooth and white, and the flesh was still there,” she said. “There was no sign of the skin disease.”
A special grace
On Nov. 25, 1870, Father Solanus was born to Irish immigrant parents on a farm in Wisconsin. In 1904, when his parents and most of his 15 siblings moved to Seattle, Father Solanus remained with the Capuchins in the Midwest.
He visited Seattle for the first time in 1913 for the celebration of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. In 1945, he returned to Seattle to celebrate the first Mass of his newly ordained nephew, Jesuit Father John McCluskey. During that visit, he also met 15-year-old Anne Herkenrath for the first time.
“I had heard these stories and wondered, who is this person? But then he played ball with us. He ran down onto the dock and jumped into the boat. He was just a normal human being, with a special grace from God,” she said.
Because of academic struggles during seminary, Father Solanus was ordained as a “simplex” priest, without faculties to give homilies or hear confessions. He was assigned as doorkeeper of the monastery, attended to the sacristy, trained altar servers and directed the ladies’ sodality.
Accepting all in obedience, he gave himself more fully to prayer, and the richness of his interior life soon revealed itself.
More visitors, including those of other faiths, began to arrive at the door as word of Father Solanus’ holiness spread. Those who met him spoke of his limitless patience as he listened to their sorrows, offered counsel and prayed with them.
As one woman testified, “He accepted people. If you were sick, he hurt with you. He could say a few words to you and you would be perfectly at ease.”
Hospitality and presence
In 1948, shortly after graduating from Holy Names Academy, Sister Anne visited Father Solanus in the Midwest. She chuckled recalling a moment she experienced his wise counsel.
“At that point, I was really on and off about my religious vocation. I thought, Solanus is supposed to know these things. So I talked to him privately and asked what I should do. Well, he looked at me and smiled with a twinkle in his eyes, and said, ‘That’s between you and God.’ He wasn’t going to get in the middle of it.”
Always involved in social issues, Father Solanus visited prisoners and prayed with them. During the Great Depression, he helped to establish the monastery’s first soup kitchen, and often worked in the kitchen himself or solicited leftovers from bakeries. The soup kitchen is still in operation.
Inspired by Father Solanus and his great love for the poor and needy, in 2005 St. James Cathedral, Catholic Community Services and the archdiocesan detention ministry collaborated in establishing the Solanus Casey Center at 1108 James St. in Seattle. The center is open three afternoons a week, and volunteers help those in need to get food, shelter and personal identification cards.
Above all, they commit themselves to Father Solanus’ ministry of hospitality and presence.
As the cause for Father Solanus’ canonization proceeds, Sister Anne encourages people to pray to him. With thousands of others, she awaits the miracle needed for his beatification.
In the meantime she cherishes memories of the Casey clan’s large family gatherings, including homemade recordings made by her father, who captured Father Solanus as he played with rudimentary yet charming skills on his violin, or sang in his soft voice.
She hopes that everyone will imitate Father Solanus’ great love for God and others.
“Solanus was interested in the whole person,” Sister Anne said. “It didn’t matter where you came from, or what your ethnicity was. He was ahead of his time welcoming all. He was a man for all time. A model for all people.”
For more information
For more information, visit the website of the Solanus Casey Guild, www.solanuscasey.org.
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