Tucked a block away from the public high school and only a short drive from downtown Huntington, Indiana, the St. Felix Catholic Center likely is not a traditional stop on the Catholic bucket list. But those who are blessed to find it know they are walking the path of a saint.
The story of Blessed Solanus Casey is not unknown. Many Catholics in the United States, specifically in the Midwest, have heard of the Wisconsin-born Capuchin friar. While he is most remembered for his time as doorkeeper at New York parishes and the Capuchin Friary in Detroit, Father Solanus left an equally large footprint in the small Huntington community where he lived at the then-St. Felix Friary from 1946-56.
“He just absolutely left a big mark in Huntington,” said Gabriela Mayo, the retreat coordinator and manager at the St. Felix Center. “I guess it was just a few weeks after he moved here that people started finding out and people started coming here.”
‘Favors’ from Solanus
The Capuchins sent Father Solanus to Huntington due to illness with the hope that the new placement would allow him to rest.
“Well, it didn’t happen,” Mayo said, as locals began flocking to the humble porter. “Even when he was here, he never rest[ed] because he could never close the door on somebody. That’s why they always left the lights on, because he answered the phone and he opened the door no matter what time it was.”
Through her work at the St. Felix Center, Mayo has witnessed and heard of many “favors” attributed to Father Solanus, including healings from cancer, paralytics walking and people finding children who were lost. Mayo herself experienced a favor from Blessed Solanus in the pregnancy of her stepdaughter, who had struggled to conceive for 10 years.
|Archbishop Noll’s Footprint|
Mayo and Scher both attribute the successful Catholic community in Huntington to the legacy of Archbishop John Francis Noll.
The archbishop’s footprint is not difficult to find. Not only is he the founder of Our Sunday Visitor, but he also allocated the land for both the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters Motherhouse, named Victory Noll in his honor, and later the St. Felix Friary.
“He’s just a big saint in our eyes, too,” Scher said. “It all builds on Archbishop Noll.”
The town of Huntington honored the archbishop’s memory by rededicating Old Highway 24 and renaming it Archbishop Noll Memorial Parkway during a ceremony July 31. The road was recently repaved in a city-wide improvement project.
“A lot of people had never come to Huntington before [Archbishop Noll] … for any reason,” Scher said. “And now because of him, we’re giving them a reason to come to Huntington, to visit Father Solanus and his legacy here.”
Jan Scher, director for the Huntington Extension of the Father Solanus Casey Guild, has also experienced the blessings of the Capuchin friar. Born a year after Father Solanus moved to her hometown of Huntington, Scher suffered from lack of oxygen as an infant due to her ribs constricting her lungs.
“I didn’t have a lot of volume to take a deep breath. And I still don’t,” Scher said. Doctors were inconclusive of whether Scher would live long, so her parents brought her to Father Solanus at the friary. He prayed with them and told them, “She’ll be fine.”
Seventy years later, Scher has lived a “full life.” “I never acted disabled at all,” she said, describing her young years as a cheerleader and her decades teaching second and third grade. She even spent many vacations traveling the world, including trips to Rome and Rio de Janeiro and six weeks backpacking across Europe.
“He [Father Solanus] just blessed me more than I knew. So, I guess I’ve just got a mission here,” Scher said.
Revival of a legacy
Starting with the guild in 2012, Scher has dedicated her later years to sharing Father Solanus’ legacy, making him a prominent Catholic focal point for the local community. But, according to Scher and Mayo, they haven’t had to work very hard as the Capuchin continues to draw pilgrims to his house.
“He’s always calling them in, whether they want to or not,” Mayo said.
After his death, people continued to visit. The Friary was sold to the United Brethren Church in 1980 due to a declining number of Capuchin vocations, and it was only recently repurchased in 2010 by local Catholic John Tippmann of the Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“After they sold it, you would have thought it would just die, but it didn’t. People just kept looking for him,” Mayo said.
The center has also seen an uptick in pilgrims since Blessed Solanus was beatified in Detroit nearly a year ago, on Nov. 18. Recently, on the Blessed’s first feast day, July 30, the guild and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend hosted a Mass at the St. Felix Center, and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades blessed a statue created for the center. Neither Mayo nor Scher expected the event to draw many pilgrims, but the event gathered about 250 people, filling the small chapel until it was standing room only. And those gathered were not just locals. Blessed Solanus drew people from Tennessee, Michigan and Florida, Mayo recalled, including the president of Ave Maria University, Jim Towey.
“I think it [the Mass and statue blessing] was just a big mark in his [Blessed Solanus’] life, a big step forward. … And as far as I know, we’re the first ones to have a statue that big of him,” Mayo added with a smile.
Hopes, dreams, plans
“After the blessing of his statue … there’s not a day [that] goes by where people don’t come around, take pictures or sit,” said Mayo.
A group called “Praying with Father Solanus” also has plans to draw more people through new renovations.
“Their plan is to have a huge garden with stations of the cross, a small chapel where people can come and pray the Rosary, and then they will have a drive[way] where busses will come in and leave people,” said Mayo, explaining that the group is waiting on funding.
While the St. Felix Center hosts retreats for adults, Scher was recently invited by the secretary of education for the diocese to visit the schools.
“He said he would like every teacher in every school in the whole Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, K-12, to know about Father Solanus, to teach it in their classrooms,” Scher said. She visited local schools in late August and September to provide teachers with resources.
“[Our] dream, Jan and my dream, is that it doesn’t stay the way it is now,” Mayo said. “I want it to be bigger. To be a shrine. … I want Father Solanus to be known more, and [for] people to come here and visit him every day.”