(by Patricia Treece)
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 specialists’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,” Mrs. 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 doubts 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. (Samples: an infrequent Protestant churchgoer commits to go every Sunday; a Catholic who goes to Communion weekly commits to go twice weekly; spiritual reading is promised, in one case from the Bible, in another from the work of a saint.)
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 Fanny 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 in 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. A few samples from the log, which include a follow-up, are given pretty much verbatim but without addresses:
March 8, 1925 — Mrs. Stella Sherwin, 47, from McKeesport, Pa., suffering from gall stones when, on Feb. 10, her daughter, living in Detroit, enrolled her in S.M.A. and sent her the certificate. The time of her cure corresponded with that of the issuance of the certificate.
July 26, 1926 — Russel Jay, 17,… 49 inches tall is enrolled… (non-Catholic). Asks Fr. Solanus to “make me grow.”
Jan. 2, 1927 — Today Russell Jay reported he grew 4-1/2 inches — 1st change in 12 years — Now developing normally.
Oct. 12, 1931 — Mrs. Mary E. Reynolds, 59, of Clinton, Ont. 17 years with epileptic seizures. Enrolled about July 25th. Has not had a shadow of an attack since. Deo Gr.
Dec. 9, 1932 — Doraine Innes, 8, of Montreal. At 4 had meningitis of brain — then paralysis and curvature of spine and cross-eyes. Enrolled in 1930. Since day of enrollment has been able to walk without crutches.
August 8, 1935 — Floyd McSweyn, now 24, of Merrill, Mich. In May 1933, fell 18 feet to cement floor, received to all reckoning fatal skull fracture. His mother tells us today that Fr. assured her “the boy will be better inside of five hours.” [He was] blind and dumb and toally paralyzed at time mother phoned… Completely and permanently recovered — save hearing in one ear.
Dec. 29, 1937 —John Charles Kulbacki, 6, blind since 3 weeks old; was enrolled in S.M.A. 6 weeks ago. On Xmas Day when at “Crib” here in Church, was almost frightened as he exclaimed — pointing to the lighted “crib”: “Look, Mama.” Deo Gr.
Nov. 19, 1938 — Thanks — Marlene, 6, was inward bleeder [note: hemophiliac] before she came… A year ago was prayed for and enrolled — had 5 hemorrhages day before — has never bled since. Deo Gr.
Oct. 27, 1943 — Patrick McCarthy, 44,… lip cancer. Threatened starvation. Nov. 9 Dr. Wm. Koch… hardly able to speak from emotion at the wonderful improvement [in McCarthy]…
Jan. 7, 1945 — Robert Hamilton, 44, enrolled last Wed. expecting brain tumor operation on Friday. Drs. who had x-rayed his head were astounded at finding no tumor.
Modesty wouldn’t have prevented recording any cures.