In Your Midst

The Solanus Casey Center

May 2012

One of the Cathedral's best-kept secrets 

A few volunteers of the Solanus Casey Center, Joe Reed, Bill Brothers, Melody Kruger, Mike Quinn, Sister Judy Ryan, snjm, are shown here with Sister Peggy Kennedy, Director (front right)


A few blocks down the street, around the corner, and up a few steps is where you’ll discover one of the Cathedral’s best kept secrets – the Solanus Casey Center.  The Solanus Casey Center is a drop-in center serving the homeless, those recently incarcerated, or anyone in need.  The Center is a joint ministry of St. James Cathedral and Catholic Community Services, and is open three afternoons a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm.  It’s a place where people can go to escape the rain, have a cup of coffee, use a phone, or just chat.  It’s also a place where volunteers and staff work with clients to brainstorm solutions to a wide variety of needs, including referrals for help with shelter, permanent housing, food banks, meal programs, clothing, access to medical help, prescription costs, legal help and transportation.  The need is great. The Center served 237 clients in March 2012, and 1,277 in the past year.  Sr. Peggy Kennedy, the coordinator of the Center, says “we may be something of a secret to St. James parishioners, but we are well known among the social service agencies in the area.  We get lots of referrals from other agencies.”  The work is done with just one part-time staff person, and two to three volunteers per day. 

One unique niche that the Center fills is helping clients obtain ID cards.  Of the 237 clients seen in March, 105 had come seeking help with getting an ID.  “We are only one of two or three agencies in the city that help with IDs,” says Sr. Peggy, “so we are a gateway to people who have no other way of getting ID’s.”  An ID is essential to navigate the social service system, says Sr. Judy Ryan, who volunteers at the Center.  “You can’t do anything without an ID.  You can’t get into a shelter, you can’t get a job, you can’t apply for public benefits—you’re really stuck if you don’t have one.”  She often sees people who have had a wallet or a backpack stolen on the streets or in shelters and the cost of replacing their IDs is prohibitive for some. The Center helps not only with vouchers to pay for replacements (about $20 to $25 each) but also with obtaining the background paperwork.  For new ID cards, Washington State requires at least four pieces of documentation.  And getting replacement IDs or background documentation from other states can be even harder.  Melody Kroeger, another volunteer, worked with a young man to get a copy of his birth certificate from Kansas.  Because he was homeless, the copy of his birth certificate was mailed to the Center.  Melody recalls how thrilled he was to see his birth certificate for the first time.  “He opened the envelope,” she said, “looked at the certificate, and cried ‘I’m legitimate!’  I felt so blessed to be able to share that moment with him.”
Another need is transportation.  “If you’re homeless and looking for help, you may have to go all over town following up on referrals,” says Sr. Judy.  So it’s no wonder that there is a constant need for bus tickets.  The Center helps has some limited funds to pay for ORCA cards for seniors and disabled clients.  Transportation out of the city is even more challenging.  The Center will often see clients who need to travel to another city or state for a variety of reasons, from family emergencies to a promised job, but may not be able to afford transportation.  Funds for Greyhound bus tickets are extremely limited, but the Center will occasionally be able to help, in partnership with other agencies. 

Working with so many people, with such great need, may seem like an overwhelming task, but the staff and volunteers at the Center say it’s just the opposite.  Volunteers often report how quickly they become “street smart” in learning about available resources.  Sr. Judy finds that working with the most vulnerable is a way to keep her grounded in the real world.  “Especially now,” she says, “with the current economic downturn, it’s easy to lose sight of how desperately people are trying to hold it all together.”  Sr. Judy also notes how much the clients help one another, offering information on services and tips on how to navigate life on the streets.   “I see a real kindness in how clients minister to one another out of their shared situation,” she says.  Melody agrees:  “I came to volunteer at the Center as part of my student ministry internship with the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, and I just fell in love with the place and the people.  It’s been so life-enriching for me to work here.  I’ve learned more about God’s grace from the people I’ve served here than from sitting in a pew.”

The Center is named for the Venerable Father Solanus Casey, a Franciscan Capuchin priest whose ministry of welcome and hospitality—as well as the fact that he was the great uncle of our own Sr. Anne Herkenrath—made him the perfect patron for the work of the Center.  Sr. Peggy says: “We really like to emulate Father Solanus, and his spirit of loving hospitality.  He was able to see one person at a time.  We don’t have that luxury, as there are so many people seeking help, but our first priority is always to treat people with love and dignity.  Only then do we move to the second priority, which is the tasks associated with addressing the needs that people bring with them.”  
A place of welcome, of companionship, of service.  The Solanus Casey Center should definitely be a secret no longer! 

Patty Bowman is Director of Outreach at St. James Cathedral.

Who was Father Solanus Casey?
Bernard Francis Casey was born into a large Wisconsin family on December 18, 1870. In his younger days he was a logger, a hospital orderly, a streetcar operator, and even a prison guard. But the work that he would do for the rest of his life began after he joined the Capuchin order of Catholic priests in Detroit when he was twenty-one. At the time, he was given the name of Solanus, the name of a Spanish missionary who worked with the poor.

Solanus was ordained in 1904. He had never been a strong student, especially in theology, so his superiors asked him not to preach or hear confessions. Instead, he was given the simplest of duties including greeting people at the church door, and preparing the altar for services. Even so, as he worked in various New York City parishes over the next fourteen years, his holiness, wisdom and desire to serve had a powerful effect.

After his stay in New York, Father Solanus spent the next twenty years at a monastery in Detroit. In time, he began to hold services for the sick and before long nearly 200 people a day came to receive his blessing. Many later reported that they believed that his prayers cured them.

Solanus saw the hand of God in everything. He was often heard to say, “Blessed be God in all his designs.”

His impact was felt during and after his life. For example, he inspired the creation of a Depression-era soup kitchen in Detroit where the Capuchins are feeding the hungry to this day. At his death in 1957 over 20,000 people filed by his coffin to pay their respects to this man who touched so many lives.
Someone who knew Father Solanus well once said that his was a life of service and love. A life spent tending to the sick and the poor and the hungry. A life devoted to God—and to loving God by loving others.


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