Thomas Coleman Younger, or Cole Younger, was born on January 15, 1844, the seventh child in a family of 14 children. Cole was seventeen years old when the American Civil War started in 1861. In spite of the fact that Cole’s father supported the Union cause, Cole joined William Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of pro-Confederate guerrilla fighters. In 1864, Cole left Quantrill’s Raiders and joined the regular Confederate army, where he served till the war ended in 1865. During the war, Cole’s father had been killed, murdered by a band of pro-union radicals. And Cole’s mother had been forced to witness the destruction of their family home. Cole returned home after the war, only to find the family farm in ruins. Filled with bitterness and hatred, Cole Younger joined forces with Jesse James and formed the famous “James-Younger Gang.” Over the next several years, this band of outlaws participated in many bank, train and stagecoach robberies. Oddly enough, Cole, and his gang, were actually seen as folk heroes by some Confederate sympathizers because Cole would occasionally be seen giving some stolen goods to the poor.
After several years, and a long list of successful robberies, their luck ran out one sunny afternoon in 1876 when Cole and his brothers Jim and Robert Younger, along with Frank and Jesse James and three more of their associates, attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. But the armed and angry citizens of the town foiled their attempt. Two of the outlaws were killed that day. Cole Younger was shot eleven times. He survived, was arrested, tried and convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Cole’s two brothers, Jim and Robert Younger, escaped that day, but were later captured and they too were tried, convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Frank and Jesse James escaped and made it safely to Missouri after that foiled robbery.
Cole, Jim and Robert Younger were all sent to Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison. While in prison they met a 17 year old, kind hearted, prison guard by the name of Bernard Francis Casey, or Barney, who was working there part-time. Barney was a compassionate person who showed great interest in people. He befriended the three Younger brothers and would visit with them regularly. He must have made quite an impression on them because, before Barney left his position there at the prison, Cole Younger presented Barney with his prized possession, a wooden chest.
Barney went on to work at various other jobs. Then one day, while he was working as a street car conductor, he witnessed a woman being murdered right in front of his streetcar. Barney saw this as a sign from God, calling his attention to all of the sins of the world. Barney vowed, right then and there, that he would spend the rest of his life serving God. Barney soon entered the St. Francis de Sales seminary in Milwaukee. There he studied for the priesthood for four years, but his superiors judged him as being “academically weak” and he was dismissed from the seminary.
Barney was deeply disappointed by this event, but he accepted it as God’s will for him and his life. After much prayer, Barney felt God calling him to “Go to Detroit.” The headquarters of the Capuchin Franciscan Community was in Detroit. Barney traveled to Detroit and arrived at the community’s door on Christmas Eve, 1896, carrying all of his earthly possessions in the wooden chest that he had received from Cole Younger. There he studied for the priesthood. He still experienced great difficulty in the study of theology, but he was ordained a priest, with limitations, in 1904, taking the name Solanus, the last name of a 17th century saint, St. Francis Solanus, who had also been a Catholic priest. His superiors judged Solanus as being “intellectually deficient,” so he was ordained as a “simplex priest.” He could not preach doctrine, hear confession or give absolution. Fr. Solanus lived his life totally trusting in God, accepting everything, be it good or bad, as God’s will. Fr. Solanus accepted this final humiliation as God’s will for him and his life. And history documents the incredible accomplishments of this humble man’s priestly ministry.
Think about this for a moment. Blessed Solanus Casey, key founder of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a man whose priestly ministry is marked by many documented miracles and answered prayers, a man beatified by the Roman Catholic Church on November 18, 2017, entered the Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, carrying all of his earthly possessions in a wooden chest that had been given him by Cole Younger, one of America’s most notorious outlaws. The connection between these two dynamically different individuals is fascinating.
Cole Younger was paroled in 1901. He received a full pardon in 1903. Cole became a Christian. And, after being released from prison, Cole spent the rest of his life touring the country, preaching the evils of crime.
I tell you this story, not simply because I find the connection between Cole Younger and Blessed Solanus Casey remarkable, but also because this story contains several valuable life lessons for us. Chief among these lessons is the principle by which Blessed Solanus lived his life, trusting in the love of our Heavenly Father in all things. He firmly believed that God was good and could therefore be trusted. He taught that we may not be able to understand the reason for some of the events in our life, but our Heavenly Father loves all of His children, and if we trust Him, He can bring about fantastic good even out of unspeakable evil.
Secondly, this story demonstrates the powerful effect and influence that the Spirit of God has on everyone, especially on the greatest of us sinners. Blessed Solanus Casey was a humble man. He humbly accepted life’s minor disappointments, trusting that God had a better plan for his life. And in doing so, trusting God for everything. The Spirit of God was allowed to shine brightly through this humble soul, and many were attracted to and blessed by its brightness.
We need to do the same. We may have plans and visions of what we would like our life to be. That’s good! But if things don’t turn out just the way we would like them to, just like Solanus Casey, we need to realize that our Heavenly Father knows what would be best for us. By trusting in God and in His plan for our life, and obediently following the path He has placed before us, we too will be allowing the Spirit of God to be manifest in our lives. Not only will our life become blessed, easier and less stressful, the people that God has placed in our life will also be attracted to and blessed by its brightness.