Capuchin dons Blessed Solanus ‘Big Head’ in Thanksgiving parade

Fr. Tom Nguyen, OFM Cap., a first-generation Vietnamese American from Texas who now lives at St. Bonaventure Monastery, poses with the Blessed Solanus Casey “Big Head” he wore during the “America’s Thanksgiving Parade” last week in Detroit. (Courtesy of Fr. Tom Nguyen, OFM Cap.)

DETROIT — Fr. Solanus Casey joined the ranks of the blessed on Nov. 18.

But five days later, Blessed Solanus Casey was among the ranks of former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, TV star Tom Selleck, basketball great Erwin “Magic” Johnson and civil rights icon Rosa Parks, parading down Woodward Avenue as part of The Parade Company’s Big Head Corps.

The Fr. Solanus “big head” has been a fixture in Detroit’s “America’s Thanksgiving Parade” for a few years, but this year was extra special, and not just because of the beatification. Wearing the costume was a genuine Capuchin priest, Fr. Tom Nguyen.

“Solanus has been a great figure in the city, and for this parade Solanus got more attention with the recent beatification,” Fr. Nguyen said.

Fr. Nguyen has been intrigued by the “big head” idea since Fr. Tim Pelc, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park, brought the Texas native to his first Detroit Thanksgiving parade in 2014.

“I thought it was so cool one of our friars was part of Detroit’s parade,” Fr. Nguyen said.

While surprised to see Fr. Solanus represented, Fr. Nguyen commented to Fr. Pelc that the person in the parade wasn’t wearing the Capuchin habit exactly right. That got Fr. Pelc thinking.

“One of my parishioners, Joe Maffesoli, he’s ‘Bo Schembechler’ in the parade, so I talked to him about getting Fr. Tom in the Fr. Solanus head,” Fr. Pelc said.

Being a “big head” in the parade is a big deal. The process involves making a donation to The Parade Company, then picking which big head you want. But once you claim your big head, it’s yours until you give it up.

“A friend of mine, Mike Pyenta, had been Fr. Solanus for the last few years, so we coordinated with him, so he was able to give up the spot,” Maffesoli told The Michigan Catholic. “I went to The Parade Company after talking to Fr. Tim, saying I was interested in someone being Fr. Solanus for the year. Once (Pyenta) learned who it was for, he said that’d be great.”

Fr. Nguyen got a little practice before the parade began, but admitted walking around with a giant head on one’s shoulders is a lot harder than it sounds.

“When I first saw the Fr. Solanus big head, I thought one day I might be able to do that,” Fr. Nguyen said. “As far as I know, it’s the first time a Capuchin friar has been part of the Big Heads, so this is a historical first for the friars as well. I hope I can represent Solanus well. It’s a great way to represent the city and the Capuchins while building bridges and opening doors.”