Solanus Center chapel, grounds under renovation as part of $20M project to welcome visitors learning about Detroit's saint 

DETROIT — What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months after the beatification Mass for Blessed Solanus Casey at Ford Field, the transformation at St. Bonaventure Monastery and the Solanus Casey Center is undeniable.

From the scaffolding in the chapel as workers complete renovations, to the increased foot traffic from visitors who want to know more about the “porter of St. Bonaventure,” it has been year of renewal for the Detroit-based Capuchins.

The centerpiece of the change is a $20 million expansion project, courtesy of the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation and its founder, the late Art Van Elslander, whose gift to the center in December 2017 paved the way — literally — for a closer encounter with Detroit's first saint. 

Since the beatification on Nov. 18, 2017, Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., director of the Solanus Casey Center, said there has been an 30 to 50 percent increase in foot traffic, with an estimated 200,000 visitors coming to the center in the past year.

“When you have 60,000-plus show up for a service (the beatification Mass at Ford Field), then the waves of people will come,” Fr. Preuss told Detroit Catholic. “We have seen a very substantial increase in our numbers. Sunday afternoons used to be quiet, and now people are coming up to the moment we close. We are also seeing people from a broader area, not just Metro Detroit, but they are coming from Ontario, Ohio and really around the world.”

The main thrust of the expansion is a $550,000 commitment to renovate the St. Bonaventure Chapel. Using black and white photographs, and peeling back layers of paint to discover what the walls used to look like, the Capuchins came up with a design for the remodeled chapel that would capture the historical feel of what it looked like during Blessed Solanus’ day.

An angel is depicted on one of the walls adjacent to the altar, a new addition to the chapel, which is currently under renovation. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)
Art Van Elslander, the late founder of Art Van Furniture and a key supporter of the Capuchins for many years, is pictured.

In addition to a paint job and a new roof, the chapel will be reconfigured with a more traditional setting, with a new altar being constructed to stand before the high altar where Fr. Solanus celebrated Mass, allowing for more seating area in the chapel.

“Our first goal was to maximize the seating, and we were able to work an arrangement of the chapel to add 100 more chairs,” Fr. Preuss said. “Then we have some plaster repairs, painting, and decorative paint that I call ‘historically inspired.’ It will not look like any of the previous renovations to the chapel, but it will have visual elements from the time Solanus was there.”

The renovated chapel features a new Sacred Heart of Jesus side altar using historic architectural elements held in storage at St. Bonaventure. The newly painted walls depict four angels, with two angels painted behind the altar holding thuribles, incensing the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove.

An expanded footprint

In the spring, work will also begin on a 10,000-square-foot expansion to the center's footprint that will include a café, restrooms, gift shop and office space, as well as an outdoor prayer area where Masses can be celebrated.

The Capuchins have acquired land for additional parking spaces on the other side of Kercheval, bounded by Mt. Elliott and Meldrum, and on the site of the current Delta Iron Works building, which currently borders the center. The Capuchins have already purchased the building on Meldrum — the company is working on plans to move three blocks down the street — and plan to demolish the building within two years.

“As we do this expansion, it’s not that we’re hoping to have bigger numbers,” Fr. Preuss said. “Our expansion is to accommodate the numbers we have now, and looking to the future.”

The renovated chapel is expected to be finished by early December; demolishing the Delta Iron Works building and construction of the coffee and gift shop are expected to be completed in two years.

An artist's rendering shows the planned expanded footprint at the Solanus Casey Center. Red dots indicate new planned features. 

Once the work is finished, the expanded Solanus Casey Center will also feature a new votive chapel, urban agriculture, newly planted trees, new lighting and streetscaping to improve the surrounding Islandview neighborhood.

“The goal of the expansion is to enhance the experience for visitors to the center, to draw more people to the center and in the process, give people more access to a hopeful saint,” said Jaimie Rae Turnbull, spokesperson for the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation. 

Art Van Elslander, founder of Art Van Furniture, who died Feb. 11, often told of visiting Fr. Solanus with his father, learning about the beloved friar and the wise counsel he offered to all who sought it. 

“It was July 2017 when Dad decided on the plans to expand the Solanus Casey Center,” said David Van Elslander, one of Art’s sons and member of the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation. “He was instrumental in the original construction of the center in 2002, and he wanted to enhance the space for pilgrims, making the place comfortable to visitors. He wanted to clean up the neighborhood, make it nicer with better amenities. He wanted people to spend time with their families, so we have an expanded café. Because of those visits he shared with his father, he wanted it to be a place where families could share their time as well.”

In addition to a renovated center, the expansion also will benefit the neighborhood, Turnbull said. The plan also calls for the demolition of blighted homes, cleaning up abandoned alleyways and a “green belt” pedestrian walkway that will connect the center with the surrounding West Village and Indian Village neighborhoods.

“The one word that comes to mind when I look back on those July 2017 meetings is hope,” Turnbull said. “Art wanted to provide hope. So many people come to the center, some not even for religious reasons, looking for hope. His goal, his legacy, was to provide a little hope to others by giving back.”

Bringing Solanus to the people

While an expanded Solanus Casey Center will attract more visitors to Detroit, it's not the only opportunity for the faithful to encounter the saintly friar. 

After the beatification, the Capuchins gifted Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron with a first-class relic of Blessed Solanus for veneration in the Archdiocese of Detroit. 

Since July, parishes and schools have had the opportunity to reserve the relic — a bone from Fr. Solanus' right thumb — for veneration for a weekend, arranging to pick up the relic in person from the archdiocesan Chancery Building on Thursday and arrange a time to return it the following Tuesday.

The National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak was the first to host the relic on July 24; since then, seven parishes have hosted the relic, with another 20 on the waiting list. (Parishes interested in reserving the relic can submit a request here.

Bro. Richard Merling, OFM Cap., venerates a first-class relic of Blessed Solanus Casey in July at the National Shrine of the Littler Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. (Naomi Vrazo | Archdiocese of Detroit)

Our Lady of La Salette Parish in Berkley hosted the relic from Nov. 16-20, having it available for its Friday Mass with the Franciscan Friars at the Duns Scotus Friary on the parish grounds.

“We had one of the Franciscan friars who lives on campus celebrate a Mass with 30 to 40 people on Friday,” said Peter Rogers, music minster at Our Lady of La Salette. “We advertised in the bulletin for several weeks and sent something in the vicariate newsletter, so we attracted people from the surrounding area.”

The relic was displayed during the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass and was made available for veneration afterward, while confessions were offered.

“Immediately after Mass, we had time for veneration and people came forward, bringing up holy cards and rosaries to touch the relic,” Rogers said.

On Sunday, the parish blessed a reliquary that will house feathers from the pillow of Blessed Solanus’ deathbed at St. John’s Hospital, and on Tuesday celebrated a Mass at neighboring Oxford Towers retirement community for home-bound parishioners to venerate the relic.

“When we went to sign up initially, we saw there were not a lot of parishes singed up at the time, so when the Nov. 17-18 weekend was open (the one-year anniversary of the beatification) we thought we were lucky,” Rogers said.

New book offers glimpse of a saint

Back at the Solanus Casey Center, Fr. Preuss hopes the relic tour and center expansion will increase the public's access to Blessed Solanus and his message of welcoming the stranger and placing trust in God.

But if all else fails, they can always read about him. 

Concurrent with those projects, the Capuchins are also promoting a new book written by former Detroit Free Press reporter Patricia Montemurri, “Images of America: Blessed Solanus Casey,” a chronicle of Blessed Solanus' life told through photographs and captions.

The book is available for $21.99 at the Solanus Casey Center Gift Shop and online through the center's website. Proceeds from sales through the Solanus Casey Center will benefit the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph.

Montemurri will be at the center on Nov. 25 from noon to 2 p.m. for a book signing, Fr. Preuss said.

“The added attention to Blessed Solanus underlines what we have always believed, that he is a saintly person who is quite accessible,” Fr. Preuss said. “And by that I mean, he didn’t found any hospital or any religious order. He didn’t do anything 'great;' he did a great job at doing the little things, things we could do: welcome, listen, pray with people, and see how we can serve them.

“That is his real impact,” Fr. Preuss said. “That’s why people come.”