Fr. Solanus: The glue that binds the Casey family together

Sr. Anne Herkenrath, SNJM, talks with a WWJ AM-950 reporter at the May 4 announcement of her great-uncle’s beatification in Detroit. Sr. Herkenrath is organizing a pilgrimage of 300 Casey relatives who will visit Detroit for the beatification Mass.
Mike Stechschulte | Archdiocese of Detroit

Detroit — It’s a great excuse for a family reunion: The Caseys are coming to Detroit.

More than 300 relatives of Venerable Fr. Solanus Casey will visit the Motor City from as far away as Oakland, Calif., and Ireland to see the man many know as “Uncle Barney” come one step closer to sainthood.

“I’m looking forward to the beatification, but I’m also looking forward to spending time with relatives I’ve already met and some I’ve never met,” Barbara LeDoux of Sacramento, Calif., said of the Nov. 18 beatification Mass at Ford Field. “We’re all going to be sharing our Solanus stories with each other.”

The mass pilgrimage of Caseys is being organized by Sr. Anne Herkenrath, SNJM, of Seattle, who has been to Detroit often for events related to her great-uncle.

LeDoux is the granddaughter of Margaret Casey LeDoux, one of Fr. Solanus’ sisters. LeDoux was 6 years old when her grandparents, Margaret and Frank LeDoux, were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954. She was the flower girl for the ceremony, and remembers playing in the backyard with her cousins when her grandmother came outside holding the phone.

“We were all gathered in the backyard when my grandma announced Fr. Solanus was on the phone and was going to give a blessing,” LeDoux told The Michigan Catholic. “She announced this from the balcony of the house, and a lot of people became quiet and knelt down to receive a blessing.”

It wasn’t until LeDoux became a young adult that it resonated that Fr. Solanus was indeed a special priest.

“I read Thank God Ahead of Time, the book by (Capuchin Fr.) Michael Crosby that they used for his cause,” LeDoux said. “I began to realize many things about my own spirituality were my heritage from his family: praying the rosary, dedication to the Lord and the Blessed Sacrament. I didn’t just get those; they were handed to me from my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”

Many in the Casey family only know of Fr. Solanus what they hear from older relatives and others who knew him — 60 years after the friar’s death, living memory is becoming scarce.

“I was born in 1962, five years after Solanus died, but growing up I remember scapulars and badges with his picture around the house,” said Cissy Brady-Rogers, whose grandmother was Grace Casey, Fr. Solanus’ sister. “Being a child, I remember thinking, ‘Who’s this bald guy who looked a lot like my dad?’”

As Brady-Rogers grew older, the significance began to dawn on her.

“I was in college when (Capuchin) Bro. Leo Wollenweber (Fr. Solanus’ secretary) came out to California and had dinner with Dad and me,” said Brady-Rogers, of the Los Angeles area. “From talking to Bro. Leo, I learned about the movement surrounding Solanus’ own spirituality.”

It was in 2007, when Brady-Rogers was researching meditation practices and reading the work of Thomas Merton about the contemplative life when she first felt a spiritual bond with her great-uncle.

“I saw it as a connection to what Solanus did during his daily devotions,” Brady-Rogers said.

For other members of the Casey clan, memories of Fr. Solanus are more mundane.

Dean Conley of Washington, D.C., is the grandson of James Casey, Fr. Solanus’ eldest brother. Conley’s mother, Mildred Casey Conley, was the oldest of Jim’s seven children and married and settled in the Chicago area.

Most of the Casey family moved west to Washington state and California, meaning any relatives that wanted to visit Fr. Solanus in Huntington, Ind., needed to take a train to Chicago and a connecting train to Huntington, or hitch a ride with Conley’s family for the six-hour drive.

“It would be unusual to not make one trip a year, or three or four with some relatives who wanted to see Solanus,” Conley said.

A portrait in the Solanus Casey Center pictures Fr. Solanus Casey’s immediate family, including his parents and several of his 15 siblings. Fr. Solanus is at bottom right.
Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Conley and his younger brother Jim would ride in the back seat with their parents and whatever Casey relative wanted to come along.

“Fr. Solanus was in his 70s and would come in and sit with the adults, and my mother would tell me and my brother to go outside so the adults could talk,” Conley said.

Avid baseball fans, Dean and Jim Conley played catch and to get away from the adults, when a wayward throw landed at the friar’s feet.

“I remember seeing Solanus and what struck me was at his age he could still bend down and pick up a baseball,” Conley said. “He was slow walking around, but seemed pretty spry for his age.”

“He could switch from adult conversations with relatives in the lounge and then go outside and communicate with me and my brother,” Conley added. “Here is this guy in this funny clothing and beard, spending a few minutes talking to us kids, like he was a normal guy.”

As the “normal guy” is set to be beatified, other relatives marvel at the impact their holy uncle had on the lives of others.

“As far as family lore, he seemed like an ordinary part of the family,” said Ann Fitzgerald of Berkley, Calif., the granddaughter of Margaret Casey, another of Fr. Solanus’ sisters. “He always seemed present because my grandma Margaret lived with us, and she was close to him.”

Fitzgerald’s parents explained that Fr. Solanus was a special priest, and that she could call on his intercession, but cautioned her not to take credit for anything done on his behalf. It wasn’t until she was in high school she realized Fr. Solanus was a bigger deal than her parents were letting on.

“When I got older, I began to realize other people knew who he was,” Fitzgerald said. “I was at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., when I opened a religious studies textbook about special people in the United States who were holy, and there was Solanus.”

Fitzgerald was surprised her great-uncle who “lived in the middle of the country” was known nationwide. But then she talked to family in Ireland.

“My cousin was in a shop in Ireland, she had a Solanus badge on, and people stopped her, saying they recognized Solanus,” Fitzgerald said. “It really showed the influence he had.”

Fitzgerald is stunned to meet people who say Fr. Solanus has had such a tremendous impact on their lives, but for the Caseys, he represents a truly special family bond.

“Even now, a week doesn’t go by without someone coming up in the house, talking about Solanus,” Fitzgerald said. “I wonder if he’s still the glue that keeps the generations together. My grandchildren are still playing with their third- and fourth-cousins.

“I can hardly wait to meet all the cousins,” Fitzgerald added about the upcoming Detroit trip, “all these people whose lives Solanus touched. He was an extraordinary man who had ordinary gifts, but practiced them with such grace, honor and humility. It’s an honor to be related to Fr. Solanus Casey, and whenever I meet someone whose life has been impacted by him, I’m just blown away.”