Bernard Casey and Ellen Murphy, both Irish immigrants, met in the United States. Their marriage was blessed with sixteen children. Their sixth child, Bernard Francis Casey, was born on the family farm in Wisconsin on November 25, 1870 and was baptized in nearby St. Joseph´s Church on December 18th. Within the family, he was called Barney. Growing up, Barney enjoyed playing baseball with his brothers. After receiving his First Communion, he began to pray the Rosary alone at night (in addition to the daily family Rosary). He enjoyed the outdoors, making traps for rabbits and hunting with a rifle to help provide food for his family. When he was sixteen, Barney began a relationship with Rebecca Tobin, who lived on a nearby farm. After courting for some time, Barney proposed to her (it was normal back then to marry at eighteen); however, due to opposition from her mother, the proposal was not accepted. When his family´s harvest failed, he worked as a handyman, logger, prison guard, hospital worker, street car operator, and brick maker to help support them. As prison guard, he met the Younger brothers, notorious members of the Jesse James gang.
When he was about twenty-one years old, working as street car operator, he had to suddenly stop the car. On the tracks, there was a dead young woman and a drunken sailor cursing with a blood-stained knife in his hands. This incident led Bernard to reflect about the deep questions of life. His family was financially stable by then, and so he took up the question that he had put on hold about his own future. He began to discern the call to the priesthood. After speaking with the local parish priest, he decided to enter the diocesan seminary, believing that God was calling him to the priesthood. He had to start studying at the high school level with fourteen year old boys. Perhaps due to somewhat low marks in his studies, Bernard was dismissed from the diocesan seminary. He was told that he showed signs of the vocation to the priesthood, but it was recommended that he consider religious life. After praying a novena for clarity, he heard distinctly in his heart the answer, indicating him to join the Capuchin Franciscan Order. He did not feel any attraction towards the Capuchin Order and even felt repulsion towards the untrimmed beard that these men let grow as a sign of Franciscan simplicity. He did not let himself be led by mere feelings. Upon entering the novitiate, Barney received the habit and a new name: Solanus, from St. Francis Solano, a Spanish Franciscan missionary.
During his novitiate, at twenty-six years of age, Solanus wrote a plan of life in his notebook: “(1) Detachment of oneself from earthly affections: singleness of purpose. (2) Meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ. (3) Uniformity of will within the divine will. (4) Mental prayer, meditation, and contemplation. (5) Prayer: “Ask and it shall be given to you” (Matthew 7:7).” This plan of life was faithfully followed during his many years of religious life. Solanus struggled in learning Latin and German, both of which were required for priestly ordination in the Capuchin order at this time. Before making his first vows, his superiors asked him to sign the following statement: “I, Frater Solanus Casey, declare that I joined the Order of the Capuchins…with the sure intention to follow thus my religious vocation. Although I would wish and should be thankful, being admitted to the ordination of a priest, considering the lack of my talents, I leave it to my superiors to judge on my faculties and to dispose of me as they think best. I therefore will lay no claim whatsoever if they should think me not worthy or not able for the priesthood and I always will humbly submit to their appointments.”
After professing vows, Solanus began studies for the priesthood. He struggled to learn the required philosophy and theology. Despite his efforts, Solanus barely passed his classes. The director of the Capuchin seminary noticed Solanus´ virtues and spiritual life and recalled the example of the Curé of Ars. Solanus experienced pain in his eyes, probably due to the strain of so much reading. At first, he was somewhat worried but then received the inspiration to give thanks to God for His blessings. “Deo gratias—Thanks be to God!” was written often in his journal, even after receiving disturbing news. These words expressed an attitude that took root deep in his heart: constant gratitude and trust in God´s goodness. Rather than rebel against suffering, he considered crosses to be “the best school wherein to learn appreciation for the love of Jesus Crucified…” He recommended praying for the grace to accept the crosses of life: “If we only try to show the dear Lord good will and ask Him for resignation to the crosses He sends or permits to come our way, we may be sure that sooner or later they will turn out to have been just so many blessings in disguise.”
Since his grades were still low, his superiors faced a difficult decision: should Frater Solanus be ordained deacon and later priest? Solanus prayed that his superiors might be inspired by the Holy Spirit. They decided that he should be ordained at thirty-three years of age, but as a simplex priest, which meant that he would not be able to exercise the faculties of preaching and hearing confessions. At his first Mass, Solanus saw his mother for the first time in eight years; his father was also present, weeping for joy. Within a few days, Fr. Solanus began his first assignment in Yonkers, NY as sacristan and supervisor of the altar boys (which were normally tasks of the Capuchin brothers rather than priests). Fr. Solanus considered it a blessing to work so close to the Blessed Sacrament.
Soon after, Fr. Solanus took on the new responsibility of friary doorkeeper, receiving visitors, including immigrants who spoke little English, the poor, sick and distressed… Fr. Solanus received everyone with a reassuring smile. This Capuchin priest lived in humble obedience and service towards God and others. He knew that he was not in this world “to be served but to serve and to give his life…” (Mark 10:45). He once said: “I look on my whole life as giving, and I want to give and give until there is nothing left to give.” He was often seen sweeping the sidewalk and feeding the poor. When people came to visit, he mostly listened. In giving advice, his suggestions were always simple; he especially recommended the frequent reception of the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist in Holy Communion. He was gifted with deep insight and wisdom in his simplicity. He would pray with his visitors and encourage them to give thanks to God for His gifts, those already received and those that would be received in the future. He recommended enrollment in the Seraphic Mass Association, which would then include one in the prayers and Masses offered by the Capuchins. He constantly pointed others to Christ. There was one request that he consistently denied. Of the thousands who came in contact him, many would have asked him to hear their confession. Since he had not received permission to hear confessions, he would simply respond: “I can´t do that,” and indicated that they go to another priest. The people did not understand why Fr. Solanus did not preach or hear confessions like the other priests. His assignments brought him to serve in the states of Wisconsin, New York, Michigan and Indiana.
Fr. Solanus was constantly faithful. At eighty five years old, it was written about him: “Fr. Solanus is still busy as ever consoling all the people that come to him. Despite the fact that he receives many calls every day, he is a model to all in his faithfulness to religious exercises. His favorite pastime is killing the weeds on the lawn and of course, he is never without his gracious smile.” He lived in constant conversion; he would say: “Only in heaven can we be satisfied as being fully and really converted. Pray for the conversion of sinners—including poor Fr. Solanus.” Father Solanus knew that strength to persevere only comes from Jesus: “Sometimes of course it becomes monotonous and extremely boring, till one is nearly collapsing, but in such cases, it helps to remember that even when Jesus was about to fall the third time, He patiently consoled the women folk and children of his persecutors, making no exceptions.”
After constantly giving of himself, dying to himself in order to live for Christ, Fr. Solanus was well prepared for death, which he spoke of with his characteristic simplicity: “Death is the climax of all humiliation, when we must finally give up all and turn all over to God. Death can be very beautiful—like a wedding—if we make it so.” He offered his last sickness “that all might be one,” adding: “If only I could see the conversion of the whole world.” He was a humble priest with great desires! Shortly before dying, he sat up in bed and said: “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.” Fr. Solanus died on July 31, 1957, the same day and at the same hour when he began to celebrate his first Mass. Perhaps by this little detail, God shows his approval of the life of this priest, who though he could not hear confessions nor preach, had lived in faithful imitation of Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest.
His life had a powerful impact on others. Many spoke of miracles through Fr. Solanus´ blessing and prayers: cures of cancer, blindness, depression, tumors, paralysis… God had worked wonders through His humble priest. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who had the privilege of knowing Solanus Casey personally, says that what most impressed him were not the miracles but “his absolute, pure giving of self.”
In 1995, Solanus Casey was declared “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II, being pointed out as a man of heroic virtues. Venerable Solanus had spoken of sanctity as possible for all: “Were we only to correspond to God´s graces, continually being showered down on everyone of us, we would be able to pass from being great sinners one day to (being) great saints the next. We are continually immersed in God´s merciful grace like the air that permeates us.”