Family of Venerable Solanus Casey share stories of great-uncle

James Conley, Ph.D., and Sr. Anne Herkenrath, SNJM, the grandnephew and grandniece of Venerable Solanus Casey, visited the Solanus Casey Center on Jan. 7 for the first in a series of talks commemorating the impact of Detroit’s beloved friar 60 years after his death. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

Solanus Center hosts first in series of talks commemorating 60th anniversary of friar’s death

DETROIT — To truly know the man, one must know his past.

With ongoing talk about the possible beatification of Venerable Solanus Casey, a Capuchin priest known throughout Detroit for leaving the door open to all and miraculous healings, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph is hosting a series of talks about Fr. Solanus, beginning with those who knew his background best: his family.

A portrait hanging in the Solanus Casey Center depicts the Casey family at the 50th anniversary of Barney and Ellen Casey, Fr. Solanus’ parents, on Oct. 6, 1913. Fr. Solanus Casey is seated at right. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

On Jan. 7, James Conley, Ph.D., and Sr. Anne Herkenrath, SNJM, the grandnephew and grandniece of Fr. Solanus, shared family stories about the holy man, detailing the history of the family that raised a potential saint.

“We’re a product of our families, and we’re grateful to have Sr. Anne and Dr. Conley visiting us and giving a presentation on the Casey family,” Bro. Richard Merling, OFM Cap., director of the Father Solanus Guild, told a crowd of people gathered at the Solanus Casey Center to hear the first in a series of talks.

The talks, which coincide with the 60th year since Fr. Solanus’ death in 1957, are meant to bring greater awareness to Fr. Solanus’ cause, highlighting the tremendous impact his life of holiness and humility had on people.

Conley and Sr. Herkenrath researched the history of the Casey family and the environment in which Fr. Solanus was raised.

“From our research, we gained these insights into how strong the faith connection was in the family,” Conley said. “Barney Casey (Solanus’ father) was a farmer who wanted the children to be educated. Ellen was becoming a teacher. Education was important for the family, but religion was a priority.”

The two detailed how the family remained close, even after three Casey sons left to study for the priesthood.

Sr. Herkenrath remembered hearing about Fr. Solanus growing up, but there was never talk about the miraculous deeds he performed in Detroit.

“My grandfather, James, was the second of 16 children, the oldest boy,” Sr. Herkenrath explained. “I knew a little about Fr. Solanus, from stories that reached us about his power of prayer. Fr. Ed, his brother, said not to discuss his fame. Fr. Ed was concerned that because Solanus was so close to God, that we should not talk about him and what he was doing, that Fr. Solanus had some purpose.”

Members from the audience asked Conley and Sr. Herkenrath how much of their great-uncle’s work they were aware of during their adolescence.

“My mom’s family lived in the Midwest (Illinois), Fr. Solanus was in Huntington, Ind., and Fr. Edward was in Minnesota, while the rest of the family was near Seattle, Wash., so we were closer to him,” Conley said. “But we didn’t consciously think, ‘Oh, he’s known for having all these miracles.”

There was a certain spirit around Fr. Solanus during family reunions, Sr. Herkenrath recalled, even at moments when he seemed “normal for a priest,” such as one time when he was visiting the family in Seattle and jumped off a boat to swim to shore to be with the family.

“I remember seeing him in 1948; I just graduated from high school and was discerning whether or not to go to the convent,” Sr. Herkenrath said. “I had this tug-of-war in my mind over the convent. I thought, ‘Solanus seems to know these things ahead of time,’ so I asked him about it. He look at me with his bright blue eyes twinkling and said, ‘That’s between you and God.’ From there I knew what I had to do.”

James Conley, Ph.D., holds a poem written by Venerable Solanus Casey in honor of his parents’ 50th anniversary. Conley, Fr. Solanus’ grandnephew, spoke Jan. 7 at the Solanus Casey Center. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

Over the course of their research, Conley and Sr. Herkenrath said they knew most of the stories of Fr. Solanus’ upbringing from family tales that have long since been shared, but came to know more about the work their great-uncle did in Detroit.

“I’ve always been in awe of him, just how he carried himself,” Sr. Herkenrath said. “Several years ago, I got into genealogy for a while, and I did a lot of studying with the family, and one story led to another. I didn’t think there was this sudden realization that he was this holy man. But after he died, reading The Porter of Saint Bonaventure’s: The Life of Father Solanus Casey, Capuchin, I realized how much he meant to so many people.”


Solanus Casey

The Solanus Casey Center, 1780 Mount Elliot St., Detroit, is hosting a series of events open to the public about Solanus Casey in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of his death. Each event is from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

  • Feb. 4: The Capuchins Remember
  • March 4: Detroit Remembers
  • April 1: We Need to Remember Solanus’ Love of Christ and the Eucharist
  • May 6: We Need to Remember Solanus’ Love of Our Blessed Mother
  • June 3: We Need to Remember Solanus’ Love for the Poor and Sick
  • July 29-30: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Solanus’ Death