The Solanus Center: Not a shrine or museum, but a place of encounter

Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., director of the Solanus Casey Center on Mt. Elliott St. in Detroit, helps set up baked goods from On the Rise Bakery at the center Oct. 24. For the past 15 years, the Solanus Center has offered a place of prayer, contemplation and encounter with God in the spirit of its namesake, Fr. Preuss said. (Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

Opened in 2002, center has been haven for thousands of pilgrims each year

DETROIT — When one walks onto the grounds of the Solanus Casey Center, a sense of tranquility is overwhelming.

When visitors pass through the “creation garden,” they leave behind the hustle and bustle of Michigan’s largest city and enter into a plane of existence where they are on par with “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Fire” and “Sister Water.” The contemplative statues call into question the visitor’s own place in creation.

It’s that contemplation that sets the Solanus Casey Center apart from any other place in Detroit, according to Sally McCuen, the center’s hospitality coordinator.

“The Solanus Casey Center is a pilgrimage center; it’s not a shrine to Fr. Solanus,” McCuen said. “Fr. Solanus was such a humble, holy man; he constantly deflected any type of attention or praise away from himself. He always directed people to go deeper in their relationship with God.”

Fr. Solanus Casey’s brown robe and violin are on display for visitors to learn more about the friar’s life.

The Solanus Casey Center opened Dec. 2, 2002, in response to the thousands of people who were visiting Fr. Solanus’ grave at St. Bonaventure Monastery over the decades.

When Fr. Solanus was declared venerable in 1995, the Father Solanus Guild worked with the Capuchins on building something to accommodate the ever-increasing visits to the tomb.

Fr. Solanus was known for welcoming all who came to him, so the Solanus Casey Center strives to create an open, welcoming pilgrimage experience.

“The visitors who come through a lot of the time are in need of so much spiritual care,” said Arah Carrington, receptionist at the Solanus Casey Center — a center dedicated to Detroit’s most famous receptionist. “When the children come through those doors, they’re in awe of the building itself. It’s amazing how when they get to the tomb or speak to one of the friars, you see a relief in the face when they leave here.”

The Capuchins were wary of creating a shrine to a man who strived to live a humble, pious life. So the guild and the Capuchins designed the Solanus Casey Center to be a place of encounter with God.

“Once we have this experience that God loves us, provides us with everything we need, then we go deeper into the center,” McCuen said. “We encounter the glass door, the Christ doors, and the words, ‘Ask, Seek and Knock,’ are written on them. They encourage people to follow the example of Fr. Solanus and not be afraid to ask God for what it is we need.”

Pilgrims see statues of eight people from the past century who lived out works of mercy, including Detroit priest Msgr. Clement Kern and Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.

Visitors learn about the Capuchin order and all they provide in Detroit, from the soup kitchen started during the Great Depression to the spiritual ministry the friars provide on a daily basis.

The center keeps possessions of Fr. Solanus on display — including his violin, the notebooks in which he recorded favors and a replica of his tiny monastery room — for pilgrims to learn about his life, but it isn’t meant to be a memorial hall.

“The Capuchins didn’t want this (the Solanus Casey Center) to become a museum or a shrine, where you light a candle and say a quick prayer,” said Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., the center’s director. “We really wanted it to be a place of reflection that would give people an opportunity to reflect on their lives and their relationship with God.”

One of the many notebooks kept by Fr. Solanus Casey is opened for visitors to read during a tour of the center.

In an era were churches are often closed during the day and people struggle to find time for God, the Capuchins are available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week for spiritual guidance, offering “the best confession in town” Mondays through Saturdays, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 p.m.

“In this age of mega parishes and priests having multiple parishes, we offer spiritual direction, an opportunity for people to talk and pray with them,” Fr. Preuss said.

Fr. Preuss recognizes the small irony that a center named after a priest who couldn’t hear confessions provides the most confessions in Detroit, but Solanus wouldn’t have it any other way, he said.

“I often talk about it, as a religious, that is the real miracle to me,” Fr. Preuss said about Fr. Solanus’ welcoming demeanor after being ordained a simplex priest, unable to preach in public or hear confessions. “This is a man who should have been bitter. He was a preacher who couldn’t preach. A confessor who couldn’t hear confessions. He accepted that as God’s will, that if I’m going to be the receptionist, I’m going to be the best receptionist there ever was.”

After learning about what life is like for the Capuchins, pilgrims walk through the “Door of Mercy,” flanked by a statue of Fr. Solanus — which will move into St. Bonaventure’s church as soon as Solanus is beatified.

Beyond the Door of Mercy are depictions of the corporal works of mercy, along with Fr. Solanus’ tomb, where visitors leave their prayer intentions written on small white pieces of paper.

“I’ve been coming here for 10 years almost every day,” pilgrim Sidney Davis said. “One, to get peace of mind, and two, I want to be closer to my Father. You see that sign, ‘the Door of Mercy’ — that to me is God welcoming us, regardless of what we’ve been through, and that God still loves you. I think this has to be the most peaceful place on earth.”

Davis first came to the center 10 years ago with his uncle to pray for his uncle’s wife, who struggled with alcoholism.

“He brought her and me here, blessed her, and she got better,” Davis said. “I keep coming back so that others see me come back and will hopefully follow me to this place. Because whatever illness or worries you have, it will just change you.”

The center then leads pilgrims into St. Bonaventure Church, to emphasize what Fr. Solanus ultimately was all about.

“It opens up to the church, so ultimately, we direct people to renew their baptismal promises with the fountain that’s there and reconnect with Jesus with the tabernacle,” McCuen said. “To be able to pray and be able to give of themselves. That is the flow of the whole center, encountering Jesus at the door.

“What happens here is people have an encounter with God,” McCuen added. “Fr. Solanus is the doorkeeper, who opens the door for them, so they come to have this encounter with God. I think that’s why people come, and come back, because they know what happens here is authentic.”

“It’s a very precious treasure we have here in Detroit.”


Take a tour

The Solanus Casey Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for visitors. Confessions are nearly every hour, on the hour, with a blessing of the sick service every Wednesday at 2 p.m. For group tours, call (313) 579-2100 ext. 149 or visit solanuscenter.org.