Since a local men’s group started praying at Ascension St. John Hospital, cases of COVID-19 have dramatically dropped

DETROIT — Detroit’s Ascension St. John Hospital is a ground zero “hot spot” for a global pandemic. It’s also the hallowed ground where Blessed Solanus Casey died.

It might be little wonder, then, that cases COVID-19 have almost cut in half at the hospital over the past two weeks. 

The Catholic Men’s Fellowship at St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms began praying in front of Ascension St. John on April 6, as the hospital’s caseloads peaked: 295 people with COVID-19 symptoms. The most severe cases ballooned. Then something happened.

Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin asked the group to carry two icons, the Divine Mercy image, and a portrait honoring Blessed Solanus (1870-1957). 

From April 6, when the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of St. Paul on the Lake began daily prayer vigils in front of Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit, until April 20, the number of patients with COVID-19 symptoms and those on ventilators dropped. Nearly 1,000 patients were treated and discharged over the same period, according to Ascension Michigan. (Graphic by Joseph Serwach)
A woman carries an icon of Blessed Solanus Casey while praying for COVID-19 patients outside Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit, where Blessed Solanus died in 1957. 

Between April 6 and April 20, the number of COVID patients dropped 38 percent to 184. The hospital had 63 patients on ventilators when the men’s group began praying. The number grew to 72 on April 14. By April 20, it dropped to 55.

“I can tell you that I feel God’s presence here,” health care worker Melissa Gaines wrote. “Not just in the building, but with all the employees I have crossed paths with inside this building. I can also feel His peace here. Like an overwhelming calmness in the atmosphere.’’

Twenty-nine months ago, Detroit celebrated the beatification of Fr. Solanus Casey at the most enormous Catholic Mass in Detroit since St. John Paul the Great visited in 1987.

Sitting with a saint

Before the pandemic, wave after wave of people came to pray daily at Blessed Solanus’ tomb at the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit.

Pilgrims fell to their knees, prayed, and wrote requests on little pieces of paper, folding them up and placing them near the holy man’s casket while praying for things such as miracle cures, jobs and an end to pains.

From 1924-45, Blessed Solanus served as a “doorkeeper,’’ filling seven notebooks with more than 6,000 requests he received from people coming to St. Bonaventure. His notes cite more than 700 who returned, cured of everything from cancer to blindness, tuberculosis, arthritis and leukemia. Older people today describe how he touched them or people they know and healed them or relatives.

On Sept. 12, 2012, Paula Medina Zarate was one of those Solanus Casey Center pilgrims, flying to Detroit from Central America at the urging of Capuchin friars who had visited her parish in Panama City, Panama. When she first saw the oak casket, she asked if it was a table.

Zarate joined the other faithful, praying and filling out 14 pieces of paper with prayer requests.

As Zarate stood up, she felt a voice ask, “What do you need for you?”

She got back on her knees and prayed for “mercy,” thinking for an instant of the genetic skin disorder, ichthyosis, that caused the skin on her arms, legs and head to thicken and scale, crack and bleed throughout her life.

Blessed Solanus also suffered from a skin disorder, psoriasis. As Zarate knelt, she felt extreme heat from her legs. Soon, she found herself shedding scaly patches of skin, and the signs of her incurable lifetime genetic condition disappeared. 

The case was scrutinized for more than five years before becoming the miracle needed to confirm Fr. Solanus’ beatification. 

Catholic carry an icon of Blessed Solanus Casey while praying outside Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit on Sunday, April 19.

As Archbishop Allen Vigneron told the Detroit Free Press at the time, “I am quite confident it’s a miracle.’’

Thanking God ahead of time

“Let us thank God ahead of time for whatever He foresees is pleasing to Him,’’ Blessed Solanus once wrote.

Fr. Solanus arrived at St. John Hospital on May 15, 1957, in great pain from severe erysipelas (skin eruptions). No matter how much he hurt in those weeks at the hospital, he continued to praise and thank God for his illness, offering to intercede for others.

“Father Solanus spent the last days of his life at St. John Hospital, where I worked,” Rosellen Loye-Bucy, of Almont, wrote to The Michigan Catholic days before Blessed Solanus’ beatification in 2017. “An aura of holiness surrounded him almost visibly. When one of the sisters who was attending to him asked where he hurt, his reply was almost automatic: ‘Oh, I hurt all over — thanks be to God.’’’

The day before he died at Ascension St. John Hospital, he told a friend, “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day… I am offering my sufferings that all might be one. Oh, if only I could live to see the conversion of the whole world.”

Each day, the men’s fellowship at St. Paul on the Lake pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which Jesus gave to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s. The men have prayed for a list of intentions, including worldwide conversions, using the prayer’s key phrase, “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole wide world.’’ 

On July 31, 1957, a dying Fr. Solanus Casey opened his eyes, reached his arms upward, and declared, “I give my soul to Jesus Christ.”

Joseph Serwach is a freelance writer for Detroit Catholic. A version of this article was previously published on his blog.