Capuchins who lived with Fr. Solanus recall holy man, terrible violin player

The Solanus Casey Center held the second in its six-part series “Remembering Father Solanus” on Feb. 4, featuring talks from Capuchins who lived or served with Fr. Solanus during his lifetime. From left to right, Capuchin Fr. Pius Cotter, Bro. Richard Merling, Fr. Dan Crosby, Fr. Werner Wolf, Fr. David Preuss and Fr. Brian Braun are pictured. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

Friars share stories as part of Solanus Casey Center’s remembrance series

DETROIT — Just about every Catholic in Detroit knows about Venerable Fr. Solanus Casey.

The holy Capuchin priest resided at St. Bonaventure Monastery, ready to answer the door, listen to people’s stories and heal the sick and spiritually broken of Detroit.

But for the Capuchin brothers who lived and served with him, there is much more to the story — such as a high, whispery voice and some really awful violin playing. But even then they knew they were living with a holy man.

On Feb. 4, Capuchin brothers at the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit entertained a crowd of people with their memories of Fr. Solanus. The event is part of a seven-part “Remembering Father Solanus” series hosted by the Solanus Casey Center.

“‘Thank God ahead of time, Pio, that’s the way it works,’ that’s what Solanus always told me,” Fr. Pius Cotter, OFM Cap., recalled about his time with Solanus. “You thank God ahead of time, so you put Him on the spot.”

Fr. Cotter was stationed in Detroit after joining the monastery in 1945, when he recalls Fr. Solanus was the first person to greet him at the door, saying, “I think you need some cookies and milk.”

“I lived with Solanus, but not old enough to work,” Fr. Cotter said. “I was in temporary vows, but I knew Fr. Solanus from my time in Huntington (Indiana), and I was a novice before that here in Detroit.”

Novices weren’t supposed to have much interaction with the friars who made their permanent vows, but Fr. Cotter still saw Solanus’ grace in action from living with him at the monastery.

“He had this tremendous faith that seemed to rub off on everyone,” Fr. Cotter said. “I remember this one time, a man came in with a boy and shouted, ‘Solanus, I want a miracle.’ Solanus didn’t pay attention to him at first, until finally after the man yelled at him for minutes, Fr. Solanus said, ‘Go to confession.’ The man said he didn’t want a confession, he wanted a miracle. He eventually went to confession, and when the boy’s parents came back from confession, the boy said, ‘Mama, I feel ticklish and warm.’ The boy all of a sudden gained feeling in his legs. It was a miracle.”

While not all of the Capuchins’ stories revolved around miracles performed by Solanus Casey, each of the friars who spoke shared stories of the small graces he dispensed to each and every person.

Bro. Leo Wollenweber OFM Cap., who passed away in 2012, recorded a video message about Fr. Solanus that was played during the event.

“I remember one event, Fr. Solanus worked at the outer desk, and he was fighting this terrible cold,” Bro. Wollenweber’s video message recalled. “The office was cleared, so I told him I’d take over so he could get some rest. Then a young couple came in to talk to him, so Fr. Solanus stayed with the couple. Two hours later, Fr. Solanus and the couple stayed there. At the end of his shift, I said, ‘Too bad you didn’t get rest.’ He said, ‘You know, before Jesus fell a third time on the road to Calvary, he consoled the weeping women.’”

Each of the stories highlighted Fr. Solanus’ holiness and kindness, but most of all, the humility he carried with him.

As word spread about Fr. Solanus’ healings, Capuchins across the Midwest were eager to meet the holy priest. Even if their experiences weren’t what they expected, they ended up being what they needed.

“I went to see Solanus when I was in college,” recalled Fr. Brian Braun, OFM Cap. “I went to his room, and the medium was the message, there was pretty much nothing in his room. It was this simple room. I was having problems in my family, with my vocation, and I was worried. I told him I’d been praying about it, but was lost, and his response was, ‘Oh, it will get better, thank God ahead of time and give to the soup kitchen or the mission.’ I remember being so mad, thinking, ‘Darn it, I came to (learn from) your faith, and now you’re telling me I just need to pray more.’ But it ended up being exactly what I needed.”

Fr. Werner Wolf, OFM Cap., said as a novice at St. Bonaventure Monastery, he watched Fr. Solanus “like a hawk” to try to glean insights into the friar’s famed holiness. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

Fr. Werner Wolf, OFM Cap., heard about Fr. Solanus while he was studying at Mt. Calvary Seminary. When he told his vocations director his desire to join the Capuchins in Detroit, his vocations director told him about the holy priest who served as the monastery’s porter.

“So the first day I was there, I watched him like a hawk,” Fr. Wolf said. “In the morning, the novices brought food to the older friars. First breakfast, I watched that man’s every move, pouring his cereal, the sugar, the cold milk, then warm milk, then prune juice in the whole works. I looked at him, telling God, ‘Father, if that’s holiness, I don’t want none.’”

Fr. Wolf spent his time as a college student and novice in Huntington, where his fellow students made fun of Fr. Solanus’ whispery voice from time to time in jest.

“He was sincere, everyone knew he was holy, even though listening to him play the violin was a challenge,” Fr. Wolf said. “But he healed people, listened to people, challenged others to go to Mass, to give to the missions. When I came to Detroit in 1978 to be the vocations director for the province, he was still alive — he came alive in my soul through the people that knew him.”

For the friars who had the privilege of knowing the holy priest, the time spent with Fr. Solanus created memories they’ll never forget, and teaching lessons that always seem to resonate — despite the terrible violin playing.

“Every Sunday, we’d have Mass, and I remember sitting up in the balcony as a novice, and the priest was using a word for donkey that had all of us younger guys laughing,” recalled Fr. Dan Crosby, OFM Cap. “So Solanus turns around and looks at me saying in his soft voice, ‘The trouble with us, not with you, is we don’t appreciate what he was trying to tell us. If we did appreciate, we wouldn’t think it was funny.’ So I laughed some more, there was something about his voice. But the way he talked about appreciating people, what differences we’d overcome if we learned to appreciate people more.”

Fr. Crosby recalled another story that perhaps best encapsulated Fr. Solanus’ holiness, the holiness of a man who had showed great devotion, even if nobody else was in the room.

“During my first year in the order, it was Christmas night and I made my way to the chapel to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament,” Fr. Crosby said. “I was in the smaller chapel, but I heard this noise coming from the big chapel. I barely opened the door to the big chapel, and there, all by himself, I see Solanus playing Christmas carols to the Christ Child on his violin. He looked so at peace, spending time with the Lord in devotion.”


Remembering Father Solanus

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.

  • 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