From Nothing Short of a Miracle
Sixteen-month-old Elizabeth Fanning lies listlessly in her mother’s arms. Anxiously, draw-faced Mrs. Fanning coaxes her child to take even a spoonful of the liver soup recommended by doctors. But although Elizabeth’s swollen belly and twiglike limbs make her look like a starvation victim, the lethargic baby has no interest in food of any kind. Little Betsy, as her parents call her, has a fatal disease in 1940: the blood cancer known as leukemia. What makes her case especially tragic is that the illness may be the result of new medical technology. Born in August 1938, Elizabeth appeared normal. But, three or four days later, a thick red growth appeared on her cheek, while a red birthmark marred the child’s neck. To stop the growth and prevent the spread of the unsightly birthmark, a series of radium treatments were given. The cheek growth disappeared, and the birthmark’s spread was halted. But after this “success” the child simply stopped growing normally. She seemed lifeless. Even her hair drooped and grew no more.
A specialists’s deadly diagnosis was only confirmed by a trip from the Fannings’ Dearborn, Michigan, home to Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic. The baby’s spleen should be removed, all doctors consulted agree, but the Mayo physicians in Rochester warn that the baby is already too weak to live through such an operation.
The rich nutrition of liver soup may buy a little time, but the doctors all warn Mrs. Fanning there can be but one outcome to childhood leukemia. The mother must prepare herself that she may simply find the child dead in her crib at any time. So sure is Elizabeth’s death that her doctors in Dearborn waive any further fees.
Then Mrs. Fanning’s aunt, who belongs to a spiritual group affiliated with St. Bonaventure’s Franciscan Capuchin monastery in Detroit suggests little Betsy be taken to a lively, seventy-year-old priest there called Fr. Solanus Casey.
“He’s a saint, and he heals people all the time,” Mrs. and Mrs. Fanning are told. With no Earthly possibility for their dying daughter’s recovery, the Fannings drive to Detroit. They carry the child, who at a year and a half cannot walk, up to the door of St. Bonaventure’s.
The Franciscan who greets them so warmly wears the Capuchin brown robe, its pointed hood thrown back on his skinny shoulders. In spite of his untrimmed white beard, the old priest has the shining face of a happy child, his blue eyes as innocent as their baby’s.
As he listens to their personal tragedy, Fr. Solanus’s face radiates loving compassion. In spite of the many other sufferers waiting to speak with him, the Fannings sense that he is totally – and peacefully – at their disposal. The only thing, he assures them, that can stop the power of God at work in our lives is our own doubts and fear. He urges the parents to make concrete acts that will foster their confidence in God’s goodness. Let them try to overcome their sadness and anxiety, which “frustrates God’s merciful designs.” He even recommends they thank God now for what he will do in the future, whatever that may be. This kind of confidence in God “puts him on the spot,” he explains with a grin. He tells them of some healings he has witnessed, cases just as “hopeless” as their daughter’s. The Fannings enroll Betsy in the Capuchin Order’s Seraphic Mass Association to benefit from hundreds of Mass prayers with a donation to the missions. Each also makes a personal promise to God of a spiritual nature. (Samples: an infrequent Protestant churchgoer commits to go every Sunday; a Catholic who goes to Communion weekly commits to go twice weekly; spiritual reading is promised, in one case from the Bible, in another from the work of a saint.)
Now, in his unusually high-pitched yet whisper-soft voice (the leftover, it is believed, of childhood diphtheria, which killed two of his sisters), Fr. Solanus talks to listless Elizabeth for a few minutes. Then he says matter-of-factly, “You’re going to be all right, Elizabeth.” Ignoring her skeletal appendages and distended stomach, he hands her a piece of candy as if the child he sees is well.
Elizabeth Fanny has been leukemic almost her entire short life. She has never done the things babies do, any more than she has ever attained the rosy looks of normal babyhood. But as her parents begin the drive home to Dearborn, Elizabeth has a new alertness. For the first time in her life, she watches everything with interest. She smiles. She sits up.
Her parents are startled, almost shocked, but are so happy at the sudden, inexplicable change that they stop at a restaurant “to celebrate.” Mrs. Fanning says: “The place was crowded – and Betsy – who only an hour before had been lying in my arms as limp as a rag doll – immediately became the “life of the party.” She waved to the people about us, jumping up and down. She was full of life.”
Soon she was walking. In the late 1960s, when Betsy’s mother was interviewed by James Patrick Derum for his book on Fr. Solanus, The Porter of Saint Bonaventure’s, Mrs. Fanning recalled: “When I brought her back to the doctors, they were incredulous. She looked so different – healthy, lively, and her once wispy, lifeless hair was now curly.”
“That’s not Betsy!” they exclaimed.
But it was. While childhood leukemia remained a fatal disease for many years after 1940, little Betsy Fanning simply didn’t have it anymore after visiting Fr. Solanus Casey.
“You’ll be all right,” the Capuchin priest had said simply. Betsy was no isolated instance of his prophecy proving correct. For half a century, Fr. Solanus’s gift of healing was so great that, beginning in November 1923, when he was stationed at Our Lady Queen of Angels Monastery in Harlem, New York, his superiors asked him to keep a notebook of prayer requests and answers. Always obedient, he tried. But “the holy priest,” as people referred to him even in his first priestly assignment at Sacred Heart Monastery in Yonkers, New York, in 1904, had so many demands for prayers, it proved impossible to record them all, even in his eighteen- or nineteen-hour days. This became clear after his death, when scores of people were interviewed regarding physical cures and other favors they said they received after Fr. Solanus had enrolled them in the Seraphic Mass Association, the organization that combined mutual prayer support, including prayers and remembrances at Mass by all the Capuchins, with aid to the missions. Even the six thousand notes from just his twenty-one years in St. Bonaventure’s must be only a fraction of the Detroit total, since only a few of the cures that interviewers found in that city had been recorded.
About one in ten of these notes has a follow-up entry. Many of the healed either never took the trouble to come back and report or Fr. Solanus never got around to entering their statements. Known cures, whether logged or not, include everything from cancer to heart disease, from deafness to diabetes, from polio to bone disease, from broken backs to infertility. A few samples from the log, which include a follow-up, are given pretty much verbatim but without addresses:
March 8, 1925 — Mrs. Stella Sherwin, 47, from McKeesport, Pa., suffering from gall stones when, on Feb. 10, her daughter, living in Detroit, enrolled her in S.M.A. and sent her the certificate. The time of her cure corresponded with that of the issuance of the certificate.
July 26, 1926 — Russel Jay, 17,… 49 inches tall is enrolled… (non-Catholic). Asks Fr. Solanus to “make me grow.”
Jan. 2, 1927 — Today Russell Jay reported he grew 4-1/2 inches — 1st change in 12 years — Now developing normally.
Oct. 12, 1931 — Mrs. Mary E. Reynolds, 59, of Clinton, Ont. 17 years with epileptic seizures. Enrolled about July 25th. Has not had a shadow of an attack since. Deo Gr.
Dec. 9, 1932 — Doraine Innes, 8, of Montreal. At 4 had meningitis of brain — then paralysis and curvature of spine and cross-eyes. Enrolled in 1930. Since day of enrollment has been able to walk without crutches.
August 8, 1935 — Floyd McSweyn, now 24, of Merrill, Mich. In May 1933, fell 18 feet to cement floor, received to all reckoning fatal skull fracture. His mother tells us today that Fr. assured her “the boy will be better inside of five hours.” [He was] blind and dumb and toally paralyzed at time mother phoned… Completely and permanently recovered — save hearing in one ear.
Dec. 29, 1937 —John Charles Kulbacki, 6, blind since 3 weeks old; was enrolled in S.M.A. 6 weeks ago. On Xmas Day when at “Crib” here in Church, was almost frightened as he exclaimed — pointing to the lighted “crib”: “Look, Mama.” Deo Gr.
Nov. 19, 1938 — Thanks — Marlene, 6, was inward bleeder [note: hemophiliac] before she came… A year ago was prayed for and enrolled — had 5 hemorrhages day before — has never bled since. Deo Gr.
Oct. 27, 1943 — Patrick McCarthy, 44,… lip cancer. Threatened starvation. Nov. 9 Dr. Wm. Koch… hardly able to speak from emotion at the wonderful improvement [in McCarthy]…
Jan. 7, 1945 — Robert Hamilton, 44, enrolled last Wed. expecting brain tumor operation on Friday. Drs. who had x-rayed his head were astounded at finding no tumor.
Modesty wouldn’t have prevented recording any cures.
“If people were cured before his very eyes,” according to a Capuchin quoted by Derum, Father Solanus’s eyes “would fill with tears, and he would seem utterly amazed at the power of the Mass… [in his mind] their cure had no connections with him.”
Few dreamed that the thousands of physical cures, changes of heart, and other graces God gave through Father Solanus Casey, like a great tree from a tiny seed, had all grown from one act of blind trust in God made by the young Casey as a seminarian.
Born in Prescott, Wisconsin, on November 25, 1870, Bernard Casey, Jr., as Solanus was christened, was the sixth of sixteen handsome, sturdy, well-liked children born to Irish immigrants. His mother’s brother a Wisconsin priest, his father’s brother a Boston judge, the Caseys were an intelligent family of prosperous farmers. They raised their large brood in an atmosphere combining care and firm discipline with Irish folk songs, daily family prayer and spiritual reading, and good American and Irish literature read aloud by the father on cozy family evenings.
If Barney grew up caring and well balanced, he felt it was because he had an idyllic childhood, whether as part of the baseball team made up of nine Casey brothers or reveling in the beautiful Wisconsin fields and waterways. At eighteen, after two years of a happy relationship, he proposed marriage to a girl a year younger whose mother promptly sent the intended bride away to boarding school. He kept dating, but his main energy seems to have veered away from marriage. After diverse jobs, including prison guard (typically he made friends with various prisoners), the devout young man made up his mind he was called to serve God as a priest. At twenty-six he entered the local diocesan seminary but failed there, because it was run by Germans in German and Latin. As they showed him the door, the seminary heads encouraged Barney to enter a religious order instead. Making a novena for guidance, he heard an unforgettable voice direct, “Go to Detroit,” and found himself in a Capuchin seminary where the courses were again taught in German and Latin.
Because of his spirituality, the Capuchins were not about to let him go – in fact, one superior predicted even then that Casey would be an American Curé d’Ars – but neither did they want a priest who hadn’t mastered all the theological nuances taught in their academic courses. Solanus, as they had renamed him, was asked in 1901 to sign a statement, the crucial segment of which translates from German as: “Since I do not know whether as a result of my meager talents and defective studies I am fit to assume the many-sided duties and serious responsibilities of the priesthood. I hereby declare that I do not want to become a priest if my legitimate superiors consider me unqualified.”
Had pride or self-will reared its head, Solanus’s whole future ministry would have been aborted. As it was, however hurt and baffled the intelligent and hardworking young man may have felt – something he never discussed – he made a heroic act of trust in God, who, he believed with all his heart, had brought him to this German immigrant-founded institution.
To his great joy, he was ordained in 1904, but to his humiliation he was made a priest simplex, that is, a priest who could say Mass, but “doesn’t know enough” to hear confessions or preach. Again, enormous temptation to despair, to anger, to self-pity, to depression, to every kind of negative response. Instead Solanus, in his thirty-fourth year, made the response of a person at least close to holiness: he accepted what would be a lifelong humiliation and prayed week after week, month after month, until he could actually thank God for apparently making him so ineffectual a priest that his superiors were hard put to find anything for him to do except manage the altar boys and answer the door as a porter.
A fellow Capuchin who knew him has remarked that it was through his ever more spiritualized and finally joy-filled response to this humiliation that Solanus Casey became holy. As the years passed, it also became clear that the apparent blight on Solanus’s life of being a simplex priest was actually part of God’s wonderful design, for it was through the Capuchin’s assignments as porter in New York, Detroit, and Indiana that God carried out the immense ministry he entrusted to the man judged “too dumb” to be a full priest.
Although his whole ministry grew out of Casey’s heroic surrender to God’s designs, the young Capuchin was not born a saint, but a red-blooded American with normal human feelings and weaknesses. He had a rebel streak and tendencies to independence and individualism that had to be sublimated to living in community. Capuchin Michael H. Crosby, in his study, Thank God Ahead of Time: The Life and Spirituality of Solanus Casey, also notes that throughout his life the emotional Casey would “battle with feelings that could easily get expressed in anger, intolerance, and excessive concern over little things.” A kind of perfectionism had to be softened to keep him from excessive rigidity or anxious scrupulosity. An impulsive person who tended to act first, think later, with his idealism, emotionalism, and perfectionism, he had a tendency when young to criticize others, if only to himself. Yet, as is so often the case with this type of personality, he himself was sensitive to criticism and liked compliments.
Since he was always a well-liked, well-adjusted, “people” person, one can see that these human frailties were not extreme; still they had to be worked through – a matter of years, not one or two good resolutions – for Solanus to find that union with God and charity toward all from which miracles spring. Single-minded and perseveringly in love with God, Solanus grew ever more aware that, however “together” or even holy he appeared to others, he had his own imperfections and needed never-ending healing himself.
It was this knowledge of himself as one who needs conversion that gave Solanus compassion for others. His awareness of his human status as a sinner kept him safely anchored in humility, while his experience of God’s grace in his weakness continually deepened his trust in God so that by his later years Solanus was “uniquely unshaken by doubt, anxiety, or fear,” says Crosby.
Similarly Father Solanus’s innate compassion for the ill was reinforced by his own physical sufferings. Already back in the Milwaukee diocesan seminary, he suffered from chronic quinsy, that is, abscesses of the tonsils and surrounding area, which not only made him feverish much of the time but caused pain and swelling in his throat so that each word became a strained croak.
In his early thirties he was in great anxiety over trouble with his eyes. He found healing when he took action against his fear of losing his sight by trying to be thankful to God and positive that whatever was occurring would be to his benefit if he let God work. Next he says: “I had completely lost the hearing in my left ear and the same condition was rapidly threatening the other side.”
Returning from an ear specialist with a throbbing earache after a very painful treatment, with the prospect of becoming deaf, he decided he needed someone else to pray for him. He turned to a woman he had never met but whom he felt he could count on as a friend in Heaven after reading her biography. He made her “a mental proposition”: she should pray for his healing and he would reread her book. The healing through Thérèse Martin, today canonized as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, increased in Solanus the absolute trust in God Thérèse recommended. So did a brush with death around 1920, when he survived gangrene. By 1940, when he was seventy, a chronic health problem was ulcerated eczema or psoriasis on his legs which caused open, oozing sores and hospitalized him periodically. Spiritually, his health was so good, however, that he was believed, by the majority of those who knew him, to be a saint.
Because of this psychospiritual wholeness, the skin problems, which would later advance to skin cancer and a streptococcus skin infection causing terrible itching and pain, did not preoccupy him. Even intense pain did not turn him inward: instead it increased his empathy for others in pain. But, by age seventy-six, while he desired to go on until he “died in this tracks” with his service to people of every creed, color, or condition, his superior decided to officially retire him as the only way to prolong his life.
Still, even at eighty, between bouts with his skin diseases, his energy was astounding. Unless sick, he always ran up the monastery stairs to his room on the second floor. He played tennis and volleyball with young men and, if he fell, leapt up like a youngster and went on playing. If there weren’t any games going on, the skinny octogenarian went jogging “to keep in trim.”
Saints abound in paradox, and Solanus’s care for exercise and healthful diet is part of a paradoxical attitude toward his health: he wanted to keep fit, but even when he was very sick or in great pain “the thought of saving himself” by not making himself available to people who bombarded him by phone, letter, or in person “would never have entered his head,” because, more than he wanted anything else, he wanted to give himself to God through service to suffering humanity.
More and more, even in illness, he said from his depths, “How wonderful are all God’s designs for those who have confidence.” In 1949, hospitalized with legs like “raw meat,” blood circulation loss was feared. Doctors stood by to amputate both legs, while every three minutes a nurse checked the seventy-nine-year-old’t circulation. Father Blase Gitzen, interviewed by fellow Capuchin Michael H. Crosby for Crosby’s biography of the holy American, recalls that Solanus’s condition was so serious that his hospitalization was kept secret to spare him the people who followed him everywhere. Still, when Father Blase visited Solanus in a Fort Wayne, Indiana, hospital:
To my utter surprise, despite a big DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, I found fifteen people in the room. Some had come from as far away as Detroit. How they found him, I’ll never know. But here he was, propped up in bed, with a white canopy over his legs, amiably chatting with his visitors. And sure enough, every three minutes, a disapproving nurse came int to check the pulse of his legs.
His attitude toward his illness was one of such lack of concern, that I was curious whether he knew how seriously ill he had been and brought up the subject on the way home from the hospital. Yes, he knew that his legs might have to be amputated, but he had the attitude: “If they came off, it was alright; if not, that was alright too.” He showed absolutely no shock, surprise, worry, or upset.
He later remarked he felt his soul profited greatly from the month he spent in the hospital. His attitude was the same during his next hospitalization, in 1950 – he cooperated fully with his doctors but left the outcome unworriedly to God.
When Solanus was young he had prayed for his own healing. In these later years he seems to have experienced in physical misery another way he could give himself to what he called “my two great loves, the poor and the sick.” That was to make of his sufferings a kind of prayer in union with Jesus in the form of reparatory suffering along the lines of Paul’s: “I make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Offering his illness, he sought healing for others but only self-giving in every possible form for himself. Thus he could say to a spiritual son who visited him during the last hospitalization and asked, “Where do you hurt?”: “My whole body hurts. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God.” Then he explained, “I’m offering my sufferings that all might be one. Oh, if I could only live to see the conversion of the whole world!”
There was no self-glorifying in such remarks. Solanus, who had as a young man liked to hear himself praised, was long past caring what anyone but God thought of him. Even years earlier he had seen clearly that God graciously lets those who seek to serve him participate in his divine activity; for that one can be grateful; to be proud would be silly. To a fellow porter, Brother Leo Wollenweber, he wrote, “How can we ever be grateful as we ought to be for such a vocation!”
At the same time he did not believe he had a glamour job. Listening to people’s troubles of every kind for nine or ten hours a day, he once admitted to Brother Leo, could be unbearably monotonous. But even when the complaints against life and their fellow man were “petty, selfish, and drearily like those voiced by scores” of others, those he received for Christ’s sake felt only love radiating from this priest who, with gentleness and compassion toward their weakness, tried to move them just a bit closer to God and their fellow man.
No inhuman ascetic, when he could he catnapped, even sliding to the floor to curl up under his desk. It also helped to get away and play his violin – however badly – to Jesus in the empty chapel.
Humor was another outlet. It twinkled in his reply to the young fellow who came in griping that Father Solanus blessed his car and on the way home it was totaled. “Ah, and look at you. Not a scratch!”
To whoever came – and he had callers of every kind – Solanus could humbly admit he did not have all the answers to the mysteries of illness and other suffering.
“I don’t understand why children have to suffer,” he said simply.
But he was willing to share the things he felt he did know. Above all, he told his callers, “God cares for you; only fear and distrust on your part can thwart his good designs.” Let petitioners do something generous for God, within their own faith tradition, certain that this always calls forth a loving response from God.
Above all, let each individual express confidence in God by “thanking him ahead of time” for whatever he is going to do for you. This was not slot-machine religion: the thanks did not guarantee the outcome of your choosing but was a statement of confidence that whatever God did would be “healing,” even if a particular condition is going to be the means of passing over to the next life. In this vein, when Solanus’s prophetic gift let him know someone would die, he still seemed able to “heal,” in the sense of achieving a wonderful change in the person’s outlook on death.
Paradoxically, while Solanus took no credit for healings or graces, to help those who came to him, as well as out of his love affair with God, the American Capuchin was a mighty prayer. Besides his many regular hours of prayer with the community, he loved to slip into the chapel whenever he had a break. There he would beseech God for his petitioners, full of joy and confidence in God’s loving response. At times, other Franciscans would find him lost in prayer before the tabernacle in the middle of the night. And because he was human, sometimes they found him on the floor there fast asleep.
Father Solanus also fasted to obtain graces for the sick. One man, who was to drive him someplace one day, recalls another Capuchin telling him behind Solanus’s back that the old priest was weak from fasting for someone. Would the driver swing by his home en route and his wife have a meal ready? “Our of politeness, he’ll eat.” The ruse worked, for Solanus was never one to let anyone know of his fasts any more than he ever talked of those long middle-of-the-night prayers.
In 1957, just a few months away from his eighty-seventh birthday, new, very painful skin eruptions were diagnosed as severe erysipelas. From the Greek for “red skin,” this is an acute streptococcus-caused disease of both the skin and the subcutaneous tissue.
Hospitalized, he was rapt in God much of the time, nurses noted, in spite of the fiery red scales which erupted all over his body. His face shining, he would muse, “The love of God is everything.” Yet, in the way of authentic mystics, he remained down to Earth and good humored.
“How ’bout a blessing, Father?” a young nun asked breezily.
“Sure, I’ll take one,” he teased, knowing she wanted his. Yet when she mourned aloud at having to cause pain in his poor ran hands by removing an intravenous needle, he comforted, “Don’t feel bad. Think of our Lord’s hands.”
Needles, tubes, and everything else, like the excruciating disease sucking his life away, he used as just another offering to God. To a spiritual son he confided, “I looked on my whole life as giving, and I want to give until there is nothing left of me to give.”
His friend says: “I looked at him there on his deathbed, clothed only in a little hospital gown, a rosary in one hand and a little relic in the other, and felt like crying out, ‘My God, there is scarcely anything left of him to give.'”
But the friend was wrong. Even in this final illness, Father Solanus was a giver, while after death freshly uncovered healings from his lifetime would merge with new cures to testify that the dead saint’s ministry was far from over.