I was first introduced to Venerable Father Solanus Casey in the mid-1980’s. I bought a book called “Thank God Ahead of Time” written by Michael Crosby. As I read through the book I found I was very much in awe of this gentle servant of God. I soon came to think of him as my friend Barney. That was his given name before he became Father Solanus Casey OFM.
Reading about Father Solanus early life I was intrigued that he once was a prison guard in Minnesota. Reading further about this part of his life the book mentioned that he had struck up a friendship with Jim and Cole Younger. The Younger brothers of course were notorious outlaws. They were members of the notorious “James Gang” from Kearney, Mo. Both of the Younger brothers became prisoners in the Stillwell, MN prison where Barney was a prison guard. Jessie James eluded capture and met his demise in St Joseph Missouri trying to hide from his past.
I lived in the very town where Cole Younger moved to after his release from prison. As I read further I was startled that Michael Crosby had written something to the effect, “No one could ever understand this life long friendship that Father Solanus developed with common thieves and murders like the Younger brothers.” That really got my attention and interest.
Cole Younger is buried in our cemetery and our town had always celebrated our famous citizen each summer with “Cole Younger Days”. We did not celebrate his notoriety as an outlaw and murderer. We celebrated the good that Cole did in our little Missouri town until the day he died. In our little town of Lees Summit, Missouri Cole Younger was known as “Uncle Cole” to young and old alike.
I read and re-read that part of the book several times. As I thought about it I decided perhaps the rest of the world needed to know more about Cole’s life after prison and the fact he became a model citizen and a mentor for the youth in our town until his death in the early 1900’s. I felt certain that Barney Casey knew that Cole, although notorious for evil, had the grace of God in him. He repented of his youthful life of crime and spent the rest of his days trying to keep other youngsters on the straight and narrow. Cole became one of the leading men of the “Youth for Christ” movement in the early 1900’s. Maybe Father Solanus had been a remarkable influence in Cole’s life, which the world did not know about was my thought at the time.
I soon made a call to the guild and a very sweet lady named Leona Garrity answered the call. After speaking briefly to Leona she advised me to speak to Brother Leo Wollenweber to see if he might be interested in more information about Cole Younger. As I spoke with Brother Leo, I explained about the connection of Cole with our town and his conversion to Christ after he left prison. Brother Leo suggested I research it some more and see if we could find any historical information, which might be of help. Thus began my first adventure and experience with Father Solanus intercession.
Going to the library I discovered a few old microfilm news articles which gave scant information on Cole. The articles made mention of his stint in Wild West Shows all over the country, of his service to the community, his work with young delinquents, etc. but little else. As I made calls and inquiries I discovered that most of the recorded records of interest on Cole had been stolen from the library several years before. The only thing I found that might help was a reference to a book, which Cole wrote later in life. It was a self-biographical book listed in the Library of Congress. Our library copy was stolen with the other artifacts so they did not have it. From there I made calls all over the country to the Library of Congress, out of print booksellers and libraries trying to locate the book. Everyone told me the same thing. Yes, Cole had written a book but it had been out of print for more than half a century. There were no copies still in existence as far as anyone knew.
After much effort and little hope for success, I finally began to speak to Father Solanus about this particular problem in prayer. My prayer was pretty simple and direct. I just said: “Well, Barney looks like we cannot vindicate your friend Cole. Unless I find a copy of the book I am at a dead end.”
A few days after this less than confident prayer I decided to give it one last try. I took the afternoon off from work and drove to Kearney MO to visit the “James Farm Museum.” When I entered the gift shop and museum I was beginning to feel pretty foolish. I browsed through the Museum and actually felt pretty sickened by the memorabilia glorifying the life of the notorious “James Gang.” The main thing I noticed was there was little to no mention of the Younger brothers. I decided I was just wasting my time trying to find the book here. A book written by a former gang member lamenting his life of crime with the “James Gang” was hardly gong to show up in this museum dedicated to glorifying the life and crimes of one such as “Jessie James.”
As I turned to leave and go back out through the gift shop, some small nudging thought made me hesitate. I decided I should at least speak to the manager of the museum and inquire about the book after such a long day’s trip to get there. I found her in the gift shop and asked her if she knew where I could find a copy of Cole’s Biography. The woman just shook her head and said:” No, I have never heard of it. We don’t have anything on the Younger brothers here.” As she finished her sentence, another worker came out of the back room with a very puzzled look on her face. She came over to the manager and said: “I was just unpacking the box of gift items we ordered and found this strange book in the box. I called the supplier and they have never heard of it. It’s not on our order manifest. They said it’s not theirs so what should I do with it?” The manager took the book and let out a bit of a gasp! There in her hands she held the very book I had been inquiring about. They were both so awed by my tale of Father Solanus they gladly let me purchase it for the princely sum of $7.00. Today that little book is in the possession of the Father Solanus Guild.
Minor miracle perhaps, but to me it was the beginning of a friendship, which I treasure. My friendship with Solanus and his marvelous Irish sense of humor. Today I think Father Solanus smiles down as he looks over the new center which everyone worked so hard to build. I think that little area, which relates the prison cell and his friendship with Cole, must make him smile. From this little adventure I have learned to “Thank God Ahead of Time.” Barney looks after his friends