Sainthood candidate reinterred in new casket, habit at Solanus Casey Center
DETROIT — The remains of Venerable Fr. Solanus Casey, OFM Cap., were exhumed and reinterred in a new casket Aug. 1 as part of the canonical process that precedes the saintly friar’s beatification Mass in November.
The purpose of the exhumation, according to the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Detroit, was to both officially identify the body and to collect relics that will be used to venerate Fr. Solanus during the Nov. 18 beatification Mass and afterward.
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron presided over the solemn exhumation service, which was limited to a handful of individuals, including three medical professionals who were on hand to examine the remains and report on the condition of the body.
“Presiding at the process for opening the tomb of Father Solanus and confirming the identity of his earthly remains was a time of significant personal prayer for me,” Archbishop Vigneron said afterward. “I especially give the Lord Jesus thanks for the gift of Father’s service to our community, above all to the least among us, and for his example of loving our neighbor with nothing less than the sacrificial charity of Christ himself.
“This day is a clear milestone on our path to Nov. 18 and Father Solanus’s beatification at the Mass to be offered in Ford Field. God is sure to give great blessings to all of us through this confirmation of Father Solanus’s holiness. For this, ‘let us thank God ahead of time,’” the archbishop said, repeating Fr. Solanus’ oft-quoted refrain.
Fr. Michael Sullivan, OFM Cap., provincial minister for the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, was among the few Capuchins present for the occasion.
“It was an honor and a joy for me to be prayerfully present,” Fr. Sullivan said. “For me it was an occasion to pray for all the friars, especially the sick and those who minister here in Detroit as well as for vocations to our way of life. I am deeply grateful for all the ways God continues to work through the presence and ministry of the Capuchins.”
After the exhumation service, Fr. Solanus’ remains were reinterred in a new engraved casket — donated by Chas. Verhayden Funeral Homes — and lowered into the ground under a glass pane, which was then topped with the wooden tomb that has marked the site at St. Bonaventure since 1987.
Tuesday’s ceremony marks the second time Fr. Solanus’ body has been exhumed — the first was in 1987, when his remains were moved from the friars’ cemetery to their current resting place in the north transept of the St. Bonaventure Monastery chapel.
Tuesday’s exhumation and reinterment took place one day after the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Fr. Solanus’ death on July 31, and almost exactly 30 years after his tomb was opened in 1987.
“The exhumation is done for several reasons. Thirty years ago, it was done to recognize the body, to evaluate how the body was, but there were no relics taken at that time, because Fr. Solanus hadn’t yet been made venerable,” said Fr. Larry Webber, OFM Cap., vice postulator for the canonization cause of Fr. Solanus. “Now, as his beatification has been announced, another exhumation has taken place, and the purpose of this exhumation is to take relics which will be used in the Church.”
Exhumation of the body of a sainthood candidate is part of the formalities of the beatification process and includes very strict guidelines, said Fr. Webber, who along with Bro. Richard Merling, OFM Cap., has served as vice postulator since 2012.
After permission was received from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome — as well as local civic officials — to exhume the body, the metal casket in which Fr. Solanus was buried was raised from its resting place Monday evening, but remained unopened until Tuesday morning, when Archbishop Vigneron broke the wax seal that was left on Fr. Solanus’ casket when it was last opened under then-Archbishop Edmund C. Szoka. Two witnesses who were present at the 1987 exhumation were then called upon to help verify the body, with medical examiners present to report on its condition.
Church officials then oversaw the collection of first- and second-class relics — including pieces of bone, hair or clothing — which were secured inside vials to be sent to Rome, where they will be catalogued, authenticated and prepared for distribution. The body was then reinterred in a new Capuchin habit and casket, which was then sealed by Archbishop Vigneron along with an authentication document signed by those present, before the a closing prayer.
Bro. Merling said medical examiners found Fr. Solanus’ body in “remarkable condition” when the tomb was opened for the first time in 30 years.
Fr. Webber called it a “very powerful spiritual experience” to be able to see and venerate the remains of his saintly brother Capuchin.
“Many mixed feelings filled the hearts of our Capuchin community today,” Fr. Webber said. “We are well aware that Father Solanus is now part of something greater than just our Capuchin community. He belongs to the whole Church, and we pray that his eventual canonization might make him another model of holiness in following Jesus Christ in the universal Church.”
Fr. Webber said while Fr. Solanus was alive, his barbers had kept pieces of Fr. Solanus’ hair knowing he might one day be up for sainthood, but those relics are not enough to be distributed to all who might request them, including the nearly 11,000 Capuchins in more than 200 provinces worldwide, not to mention churches and religious communities in Detroit and elsewhere.
A first-class relic is considered part of the blessed or saint’s body — skin, bones, blood and hair — while a second-class relic can be an article of clothing or something else used by the person during his or her life. A third-class relic is considered any item that has touched a first-class relic.
Msgr. Ronald Browne, who since 2014 has served at the archbishop’s delegate for the cause of Fr. Solanus, said it is a “very exciting time for the Church, especially for the Church in Detroit and the city of Detroit, because Father Solanus is a historical figure here, being recognized universally by the Church for his holiness.”
“It’s a beautiful example for us in our day in age, in our time, because this was a man who greeted the people at the door. He welcomed whoever – rich or poor, no matter what race – and they were welcomed. He would do what he could for them,” Msgr. Browne said.
Born Bernard Francis Casey on Nov. 25, 1870, Fr. Solanus was the sixth of 16 children to Irish immigrants Bernard James Casey and Ellen Elizabeth Murphy. He enrolled at St. Francis High School Seminary near Milwaukee in 1891, but because of academic limitations he was advised to consider joining a religious order instead.
After reflecting before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he felt the urging to “go to Detroit” and heeded this advice, joining the Capuchin order in 1897 and being given the religious name “Solanus.”
Although he continued to struggle academically, Fr. Solanus was at last ordained in 1904 by Milwaukee Archbishop Sebastian Messmer as a “simplex priest,” meaning he could celebrate Mass but could not preach doctrinal sermons or hear confessions.
After serving for two decades in friaries and churches in New York, Fr. Solanus was transferred back to Detroit in 1924, where he began working as the porter — or doorkeeper — of St. Bonaventure Monastery.
It was in this role that Fr. Solanus cemented his reputation for holiness and compassion. For 22 years, he greeted those who came to the monastery’s doors, conducted well-attended services for the sick and became known for his gentle, wise counsel and genuine concern for those who sought his aid. Soon, news of extraordinary physical and spiritual healings attributed to his intercession spread, and he quickly became well-known throughout the Detroit area.
Fr. Solanus also helped establish the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929 to feed the hungry during the Great Depression, a work that continues in Detroit today.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II named Fr. Solanus “venerable,” attesting that the friar lived a life of “heroic virtue” — the first major step in his canonization cause. Then, on May 4 of this year, Pope Francis announced Fr. Solanus would be declared “blessed” after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints verified a miracle attributed to his intercession.
Msgr. Browne said he knew the miracle investigation — the fourth on which he’s worked while serving in the archdiocesan curia — was “something very special” when he first heard it. A woman had been suffering from a terrible skin disease.
“The person who was granted the favor never knew anything about Father Solanus until she was here in Detroit. She’s not from the United States,” Msgr. Browne explained. “A Capuchin friend was showing her (the tomb) and explaining that’s where Father Solanus was buried, and that he was a very holy man. She was at the tomb praying for her family and when she finished praying, she heard a voice say to her: ‘Well what about yourself; what do you need?’
“And the next thing she knew, she was feeling warmth on her leg where her skin disease was very prominent. She rolled up her slacks and looked down, and the skin disease was crumbling off,” Msgr. Browne said.
Fr. Solanus — who is reported to have healed so many throughout his life while himself suffering many ailments — died of a skin disease in July 1957.
Fr. Webber said he looks forward to another powerful story when he gathers with all of Detroit at Fr. Solanus’ Nov. 18 beatification Mass at Ford Field.
“The only thing I want is that at the beatification Mass, with Ford Field filled with all the people, that we pray the prayer for the favor for his canonization. I am praying diligently that God, right there at Ford Field, will shower down blessings and the favor that we need so we can advance Fr. Solanus to sainthood and make this a universal celebration.”
Ticket information for the Mass will be available in the coming weeks.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the wooden cover that has marked Fr. Solanus’ grave site since 1987 would be replaced. We apologize for this error.