Throughout his life, but especially, as one would expect, toward the end, Solanus Casey’s thoughts turned more and more to death and to how life relates to death. His statements on this subject show a remarkable familiarity, even friendliness, with death, which well reflect the words of his spiritual father Saint Francis of Assisi, who prayed in his Canticle of Brother Sun, “Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.”
“Many are the rainbows,” Solanus wrote in a letter to his brother Edward, “the sunbursts, the gentle breezes—and the hailstorms we are liable to meet before, by the grace of God, we shall be able to tumble into our graves with the confidence of tired children into their places of peaceful slumber.”
While still in Yonkers he had written, “Death can be beautiful…if we make it so.” How? A passage from another letter answers this question: “Let us thank God ahead of time for whatever He foresees is pleasing to Him,…leaving everything at His divine disposal, including—with all its circumstances, when, where, and how—God may be pleased to dispose the events of our death.”
At the beginning of 1956, Solanus’s skin disease worsened to the point that his superiors in Huntington felt he should go back to Detroit. On January 12 he left St. Felix’s in the company of a Capuchin brother. In Detroit he underwent an operation to deal with some cancerous lesions on his legs, but as for the rest of the problems, the doctors said they could do little beyond trying to keep him comfortable. Far fewer antibiotics were available then, and Solanus was allergic to the ones that were.
In order to protect Solanus, the superior forbade the community, Solanus included, from saying anything about his presence at St. Bonaventure’s. He could not meet with people or receive phone calls without permission, though he did start to answer some of his correspondence.
It soon proved impossible to completely conceal Solanus’s presence at the monastery. People started calling and ringing the doorbell, asking to see him. When Solanus was up to it, his superior allowed half-hour talks or visits to his room. Solanus chafed a bit at the restrictions on what had been his calling. “Why don’t they let me see the people?” he asked Brother Ignatius Milne, who sensed in Solanus’s tone the idea, “So what if I die in the process? What am I all about?”
The lid on the secret return of Solanus came off in a big way in December 1956. The Detroit News was doing a story on the hundredth anniversary of the Capuchin foundation in the United States and sent a photographer to take some pictures at St. Bonaventure’s. The photographer spotted the picturesque Solanus, though he apparently didn’t know who Solanus was. He asked Solanus to pose as if he were giving a blessing.
Solanus stiffened a bit and said, “I will not pretend to give a blessing. If you want a blessing, kneel down and I will give one.” The photographer shot his photo of “Father Solanus giving a real blessing.”
The monastery chronicle a few days later told the story: “The Capuchins of Detroit ‘made the papers’ today. Father Solanus was spread all over the front cover of the [color] section.” Solanus was also the only friar quoted in the article, saying Capuchin life was “like starting heaven here on earth.” The Capuchin brothers at the front desk now had to fend off larger numbers of people trying to see Solanus.
“My Last Breath to God”
In early May 1957 Solanus suffered a severe outbreak of erysipelas, and he entered the hospital, where his condition became grave. After receiving oxygen, he improved a bit, and as he came to he began singing a hymn to Mary. He was even able to joke with people. To a nursing sister who said, “Father, throughout the years I have so often heard people speak of you,” he replied, perhaps recalling his prison-guard days, “Yes, people often speak of Jesse James, too.” Another time this same sister came to his room and asked, “How about a blessing?” “All right,” Solanus said, “I’ll take one.”
He was in and out of the hospital a couple more times, and even there his ministry continued. Patients came to him for prayers and blessings, some of which resulted in favors granted. He liked to be wheeled to the hospital chapel, and he would bless people along the way. In the chapel he attended Mass, prayed the rosary or had someone read to him from Mystical City of God. His life was much like what it had been for decades: prayer, holy reading and blessing people who sought him out.
Solanus was in a great deal of pain near his death, but he never complained. He maintained his spirituality of gratitude to the end. When asked where it hurt, he said, “My whole body hurts,” and added, “Thanks be to God.”
Like many people near death, Solanus seemed to know when the end was coming. On the day before he died, he told his friend and superior Gerald Walker, “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day.”29 He also said, “Tomorrow it will be all over. I want to go to heaven, but with all Christendom.”30 What did he mean? “I am offering my sufferings that all might be one. Oh, if only I could live to see the conversion of the whole world.”
As he had throughout his whole life and ministry, Solanus was offering himself in order to bring others to God. His words to Gerald Walker sum up his life: “I looked on my whole life as giving, and I want to give until there is nothing left of me to give. So I prayed that, when I come to die, I might be perfectly conscious, so that with a deliberate act I can give my last breath to God.”
God answered his prayer, for at the moment of his death, on July 31, 1957, Solanus suddenly opened his eyes, reached out his arms and said: “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.”33 He died fifty-three years to the hour after his first Mass as a priest in Appleton, Wisconsin. The perfect self-offering of his earthly life was complete.
As Solanus’s body was being prepared, it was discovered that his skin disease had disappeared. Solanus was waked first at a funeral home, where people began lining up at five o’clock in the morning on the day of the visitation, and then at St. Bonaventure Chapel, where about twenty thousand people viewed the body.
All kinds of people came: “ordinary people, rich people, women, children, priests; every class of people. There was nothing done directly or indirectly by any member of the [Capuchin] Community to encourage such a gathering. This was an entirely spontaneous outpouring of love and respect by the people who came to see him.”34 The celebration of the funeral Mass took place amid an overflow crowd on the following Saturday.
The public outpouring of grief and gratitude genuinely surprised some of the friars. They had not realized how many people Solanus had touched and what a profoundly holy and venerable figure they had had in their midst. In contrast to Padre Pio, whom virtually the entire monastic community at Our Lady of Grace revered, Solanus from time to time had received the treatment due a second-class citizen.
Within a year after Solanus’s death, Father Gerald Walker sent a report to the Capuchin minister general in Rome, Father Benignus of Sant’ Ilario. In a return letter Father Benignus wrote:
Solanus was certainly an extraordinary man, a replica of St. Francis, a real Capuchin. The wonderful spontaneous tribute paid to him by Catholic and non-Catholic alike is surely an ample proof that our traditional spirituality is still very much capable of winning the people among whom we work to a realization of the primacy of the spiritual and Catholic outlook on life. May he still continue to do much good from heaven, bringing many souls nearer to God and inspiring his own Capuchin brothers with something of his humble spirit.