Sixteen-month-old Elizabeth Fanning lies listlessly in her mother’s arms. Anxiously, drawn-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 specialist’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,” Mr. 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 doubt 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.
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 Fanning 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 at 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.
Modesty wouldn’t have prevented recording any cures.
“If people were cured before his very eyes,” according to a Capuchin quoted by Derum, Fr. 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 connection with him. . . .”
Few dreamed that the thousands of physical cures, changes of heart, and other graces God gave through Fr. 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.
image: Nheyob / Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Nothing Short of a Miracle, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.