ATHERTON, Calif. — Almost eight decades have passed since Mary Margaret “Peggy” Roney developed a serious infection in the mastoid bone behind her ear, but Sacred Heart Sister Rosemary Roney hasn’t forgotten the events that led to her sister’s cure.
Peggy was just a toddler, and the youngest of the seven Roney siblings, when her parents called for the family pediatrician, fearful that the painful infection could jeopardize their daughter’s hearing, or worse.
Peggy’s older sister, Rosemary, then about 12, shared her parents’ anxiety. The year was 1936 or 1937, and at that time, penicillin or other antibiotics were not available to treat such problems, and physicians were sometimes required to remove the infected bone.
As the tearful child lay in bed, with a high fever and in a good deal of pain, Capuchin Father Solanus Casey, a “skinny” bearded priest, with a “wispy” voice, arrived to join the family for dinner at their home in the Detroit area. Rosemary’s father, Edward Roney, helped Father Casey with his busy soup kitchen, and the priest was a welcome presence at family meals.
“I happened to be there with my mother when Father Solanus arrived,” Sister Rosemary, now age 91, told the Register during an interview at Oakwood, a retirement home for Religious of the Sacred Heart in Atherton, California. The interview was shortly after the Church announced Father Casey’s beatification on May 4.
“Father Solanus and Mom were talking, and he asked about the family.
“Mom said, ‘They are all fine, except the youngest. The doctor thinks she has mastoiditis, and we are afraid she will lose her hearing.
“Mom said, ‘Do pray for her, Father, because it hurts, and she cries a lot — and she is so young.’”
Father Solanus asked if he could see Peggy.
Rosemary escorted the priest upstairs, and he walked over to Peggy’s little bed.
“Father Solanus stood there and prayed. Then he leaned over and touched her ear. Then he stood up straight, and he blessed her.
“Peggy couldn’t talk much, so there was no conversation,” recalled Sister Rosemary.
When the priest returned to the first floor, he reassured Mrs. Roney that her daughter would recover.
“Later, when Mom took her temperature, the fever was gone, and her temperature was normal,” said Sister Rosemary.
The family pediatrician confirmed that the crisis had passed and the child’s ear was fine.
“Life returned to normal,” but Father Solanus’ actions that evening deepened the family’s respect for the priest, who had developed a following in Detroit.
A Faithful Doorkeeper
At that time, Father Solanus was assigned to St. Bonaventure Monastery, where he worked from 1924 to 1945. He was ordained a “simplex priest” and was not permitted to give homilies or hear confessions, due to his low grades in theology (no longer a designation).
While based at the Detroit monastery, he served as a porter, or “doorkeeper,” greeting visitors who rang the bell. It was a minor position, but Father Solanus’ loving presence transformed his routine interactions into a vibrant ministry.
Sister Rosemary still remembers stopping by the monastery to request a Mass card and finding the reception area filled with visitors eager to meet with Father Solanus and seek his guidance and intercession.
Over time, she learned of other healings that were linked to the priest, who had a great devotion to the Eucharist and urged those who implored his help to begin their prayers with an expression of gratitude to God. “He wasn’t allowed to hear confessions, but people would go in and pour out their hearts and souls to him, and he would give them advice,” she said. “His favorite response was: ‘Be sure to thank God first.’”
Father Solanus’ years as a porter at St. Bonaventure Monastery overlapped with the Great Depression. Haggard, jobless men rang the bell of the monastery, seeking food and other forms of assistance for their families, and the priest would help them.
“Finally, Father Solanus got the idea of starting a soup kitchen,” said Sister Rosemary.
“My father was interested in helping. It was the Depression, and friends of ours had lost everything.”
Mr. Roney served on the soup kitchen’s board of directors for 14 years, and that brought him into regular contact with the charismatic priest.
“In the early days, the soup kitchen only served men. There was one kitchen with long tables in a small house next to the monastery.
“Daddy would go over for a meeting, where they would discuss how to keep the soup kitchen going. After the meeting, they would have a beer, and Father Solanus would play his fiddle and sing. I have a CD of his voice.”
‘You Just Knew He Was Holy’
These formative experiences shaped Rosemary Roney’s own path to a religious vocation, nourished by her many years as a student at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grosse Pointe that was run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.
“God’s love just poured out of him, and he made a love of the world more attractive to others. He deepened my sense that this is what was important in life,” she said.
“The whole charism of the Religious of the Sacred Heart is to show the love at the heart of Jesus’ Sacred Heart.”
Now, in the evening of her life as a woman religious, Sister Rosemary is eagerly awaiting the beatification of a priest she had the privilege to know as a child.
“Everybody who knew him and had been praying to him is thrilled with this news,” she said. “Many cures and healings of heart, soul, mind and body are linked to him.”
Why did people turn to Father Solanus?
“He was just so compassionate, understanding and loving. There was no harshness or scolding,” said Sister Rosemary, as she reflected on a monastery porter’s remarkable and mysterious legacy.
“Being in his presence was a gift. You just knew he was holy.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.