Growing up in Southeast Alaska, Carl Fundeen didn’t know he had a possible Catholic saint in his family tree.
Since then, he has doubled down on learning as much as he can about the life and character of his great uncle — the now Blessed Father Solanus Casey.
Fundeen’s grandmother was the youngest sibling of the much loved 20th century Capuchin priest. As the Catholic Church inched closer to recognizing Father Casey as one of her official saints, Fundeen grew more interested.
Fundeen, now 75, is a longtime parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage. These days he is pleased to ponder the extraordinary life of his great uncle.
On Nov. 18 Father Casey was officially beatified or recognized as “blessed” by the Catholic Church. This means the church has established that he lived a holy life of heroic virtue and that at least one miracle has come about through his intercessions. The title of blessed is the last stage before canonization, the point at which the church affirms that a person was indeed a saint.
Father Casey’s recent beatification took place in Detroit, Michigan, the city where he co-founded the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in 1929, and where he served as the kindly doorman at Detroit’s St. Bonaventure Monastery for more than two decades.
Although Fundeen wasn’t able to travel to Michigan for his uncle’s beatification, he was pleased that many other relatives made the trek.
Fundeen has visited the monastery in Detroit where Father Casey served the last half of his priesthood. He has also met Brother Leo, Father Casey’s fellow Capuchin friar and the vice postulator (or main promoter) for the church to publicly recognize him as a saint.
The night before the beatification, Fundeen attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, which showed a film on Father Casey’s life, followed by a discussion about the inspiring and humble priest.
Fundeen has plenty of reason to believe his uncle is a man close to God. In particular, he has three relics of Father Casey’s — a whisker, a cloth touched by his body and a yellow ribbon blessed by the priest, which have taken on heightened significance after Fundeen had a close brush with death in 2009. A pilot of 37 years, his single-engine plane crashed during a takeoff in Anchorage.
“I attribute the wreck to my own error, and the containment (of fuel), and recovery to the first responders and doctors, of course,” he said. “But ultimately I believe it was Father Casey’s prayers for my protection.”
He had been carrying the relics with him, but has since preserved more permanently by matting and framing them.
Fundeen noted the inspiration his family has drawn in learning more about their holy relative.
“If I had been aware of his perseverance and humility, perhaps I really would’ve considered a religious vocation,” Fundeen mused.
Fundeen spent his childhood on Annette Island, in Alaska’s Southeast Panhandle, and was taught by Jesuits from nearby Ketchikan.
“They were so eloquent, just so well-spoken. Based on that alone, I think I pushed it out of my mind as a possibility for me,” he recalled.
But learning of how Father Casey overcame academic struggles in a pursuit of his vocation to the priesthood was an eye opener for Fundeen.
“He was a farm boy,” Fundeen explained. “When he was finishing grade school, his peers were finishing high school.”
“He spoke English, and the seminaries available to him at that time were run in German,” he added. “He had to learn German in order to learn Latin!”
Father Casey finished near the bottom of his class and was eventually ordained with the Capuchins as a simplex priest, meaning he could offer Mass but was not to expound on church teaching. He then headed to Yonkers for the first two decades of his priesthood, assigned as a porter, where he became known as ‘the Brother who said Mass,’ given that the position of porter was normally reserved for religious brothers rather than priests.
Those who became acquainted with the Irish priest began to seek his counsel informally, however, with well-chronicled crowds gathering to hear the Gospel offered in his trademark style.
“He had no prestige, but deep wisdom,” Fundeen explained. “He spoke as if he was in direct contact with God.”
Fundeen noted that Father Casey’s popular appeal went beyond Catholics — with government leaders, Jews and others often assembling in lines to get a few moments with the priest. His spirituality was renown for its simplicity.
Fundeen’s favorite stories about his great uncle, reveal a man of Irish wit and uncommon humility.
One of Fundeen’s favorites was recorded by a visitor who witnessed Father Casey’s long hours spent kneeling in prayer. The visitor expressed concern for the priest, asking, “Don’t your knees get sore?” “Oh no, I found the soft boards,” assured the holy man.
Another story Fundeen shares highlights Father Casey’s unwavering faith while staffing a Depression-era soup kitchen. His fellow workers became panicked when they realized they were out of food. Father Casey suggested they pray the Our Father. A delivery truck appeared as if summoned, and the driver was stunned to see the quantity of food unloaded, claiming it was impossible due to the truck’s limited capacity.
With scores of similar stories about Father Casey, Fundeen said his extended family’s appreciation of the priest continues to deepen through the years. While they cherish the familial ties, they hope to share his message with everyone: a message of faith and perseverance.
“Keep going,” Fundeen said. “Answer the call to the priesthood for those who have it, and remember that the church doesn’t say that the proud will go to heaven first.”