Friar's relatives, near and far, marvel at his reputation for sanctity

DETROIT (CNS) -- It's a great excuse for a family reunion: The Caseys are coming to Detroit.

More than 300 relatives of Capuchin Franciscan Father Solanus Casey will visit the Motor City from as far away as California 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, California, said of the Nov. 18 beatification Mass at Ford Field. "We're all going to be sharing our Solanus stories with each other."

Sister Anne Herkenrath of Seattle is organizing the pilgrimage of Caseys. The Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary has been to Detroit often for events related to her great-uncle.

LeDoux is the granddaughter of Margaret Casey LeDoux, one of Father Solanus' sisters. LeDoux remembers Father Solanus calling her grandparents, Margaret and Frank LeDoux, as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954. She was 6 and was the flower girl for the ceremony. 

She recalls 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 Father Solanus was on the phone and was going to give a blessing," LeDoux told The Michigan Catholic, Detroit's archdiocesan newspaper. "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 Father Solanus was indeed a special priest.

"I read 'Thank God Ahead of Time,' the book by (Capuchin Franciscan Father) 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."

Many in the Casey family only know of Father Solanus from what they hear from older relatives and others who knew him. Sixty 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 Rodgers, whose grandmother was Grace Casey, Father Solanus' sister. "Being a child, I remember thinking, 'Who's this bald guy who looked a lot like my dad?'"

As Rodgers grew older, the significance began to dawn on her.

She was 10 years old when Capuchin Franciscan Brother Leo Wollenweber, Father Solanus' secretary, "came out to California and had dinner with Dad and me," said Rodgers, of the Los Angeles area. "From talking to Brother Leo, I learned about the movement surrounding Solanus' own spirituality."

Around the same time, Rodgers was researching meditation practices and reading the work of Trappist Father Thomas Merton about the contemplative life when she first felt a bond with her great-uncle.

"I saw it as a connection to what Solanus did during his daily devotions," Rodgers said.

Dean Conley of Washington is the grandson of James Casey, Father 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 who wanted to visit Father Solanus in Huntington, Indiana, 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.

Some years before his death and in failing health, Father Solanus was transferred to the Capuchin novitiate of St. Felix in Huntington, where he lived until he was hospitalized in Detroit for a time in 1956. He died in 1957.

"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.

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

"Father 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 to get away from the adults. Once 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."

Still 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, California, the granddaughter of Margaret Casey, another of Father Solanus' sisters. "He always seemed present because my grandma Margaret lived with us, and she was close to him."

Fitzgerald's parents explained that Father 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 Father 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, California, when I opened a religious studies textbook about special people in the United States who were holy, and there was Solanus."

"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 Father Solanus Casey, and whenever I meet someone whose life has been impacted by him, I'm just blown away."