By CAROLE BRESLIN
St. Francis Mary of Camporosso, St. Veronica Giuliani, St. Joseph of Leonessa, St. Leopold of Mandic, and St. Seraphin of Montegranaro are just a few of the 115 Capuchin men and women who have been declared saints or blesseds by the Catholic Church. There are so many that Pope St. John Paul II remarked, “They say you Capuchins are poor, but you are actually very, very rich. You have saints!”
St. Conrad of Parzham, a porter for the Capuchins, is numbered among these holy men and women.
St. Conrad’s parents were Bartholomew Birndorfer and Gertrude Niedermayer, who welcomed his arrival on December 22, 1818, naming him John. Even though they were peasant farmers in Bad Griesbach, Passau, Bavaria — a land largely populated by Luther’s followers — they remained faithful to the Catholic Church.
John, not particularly intelligent, left school at an early age and began working on his parents’ farm. He lost his mother when he was 14. He soon became known for his deep prayer life and holiness. His daily routine began with Mass and time spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Like many saints, he also had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, making pilgrimages to the various Marian shrines in Bavaria.
When he was 31, after he had lost both parents, he embraced true poverty by surrendering all rights to his inheritance of the family farm and entering the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor as a lay brother; he took the name Conrad. The friary was located in the Marian Shrine of Altötting, about 40 miles southwest of his family farm.
Like Venerable Solanus Casey who served as porter for the Capuchin Friars Minor in Detroit, Mich., Conrad served in that position for the remaining 49 years of his life. And also like Casey, Conrad touched many souls and, by God’s grace, worked many miracles.
Brother Conrad surrendered completely to the will of God and never became upset with the many and constant demands of the people. He promptly and lovingly answered the door, welcoming all guests — being especially kind to those who had traveled great distances. As a true Capuchin — and a true German farmer — he always offered them healthy food and a stein of bracing beer.
He found beer very refreshing and enjoyed at least one serving per day. This scandalized some during his canonization process, causing extensive debate. Finally, the officials ordered that a barrel of the beer which Brother Conrad favored be brought to them. The beer could not be kept refrigerated during the train trip from Bavaria to Rome, so the beer became stale and lost its taste. When the officials sipped the ale, they exclaimed, “Ah! He drank this beer as a mortification.”
As porter, Brother Conrad opened wide the doors to the friary, his heart, and especially the pantry. He had a special love for the poor and their children, giving them food with a little bit of holy advice.
Despite the complaints some made about the monotony of the unchanging menu, Conrad remained cheerful and generous. He responded humorously, saying to one man, “Today we will serve bread and soup instead of soup and bread.” The irate beggar grabbed the offered bowl of soup and threw it in the brother’s face. With heroic patience, Brother Conrad wiped off his face and continued serving the other guests.
Even the children tested him. Seeking to entertain each other at the expense of others, they would play the usual pranks. What generation has not knocked on someone’s door and ran for cover? This they did to the porter many times. They also sent him on fruitless missions: Knowing that a particular priest had just left, they would ask Conrad to go fetch that priest. But Brother Conrad would only apologize for his failed mission and never rebuked the youths.
When those same children came back after school for food, Brother Conrad charitably welcomed them, making sure they said the short prayer that he had already taught them.
Such uncommon tolerance for those annoyances can only be practiced with divine assistance. Brother Conrad faithfully followed a daily routine that began between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m., when he filled in for an ailing sacristan. He would then open the church door at 4:30 before waking the priest who was to celebrate Mass in the Chapel of Graces. Then he would serve the priest at Mass, and was able to receive Holy Communion daily — something uncommon at that time.
He also attended a second Mass each morning followed by deep prayer and meditation. By 6:00 a.m., he began his shift at the door of the friary where he first set out the Mass Appointment Book, sacramentals, blessed seeds, and herbal medicines which he handed out to the faithful. In addition, he would set out the proper liturgical vestments for the next Mass, feed the visiting priests, and find the priests who were requested for a special blessing or Confession.
At 11:00 a.m. the poor came for soup and Brother Conrad would always add a meatball or two. When he entered the kitchen, the helpers would shout, “Cover the pots or he’ll take everything!” Brother Conrad calmly replied, “Whatever we give to the poor will be repaid generously.”
Sadly, a Guardian of the Fraternity believed that Brother Conrad’s feeding of the poor was inappropriate and sought to put an end to it. Since Brother Conrad had to answer the door, it was he to whom the disgruntled poor then voiced their anger. Again he accepted this abuse with quiet resignation as coming from the hand of God.
At noon Brother Conrad left for prayers and lunch. However, if someone came to the door, he leapt up without hesitation to see to the person’s request. He would then return to his lunch — now cold — without complaint.
From 12:30 to 2:00 P.M. was a rest period for the Capuchins, but Brother Conrad spent his time in prayer, walking in the garden, kneeling in the chapel, or shutting himself in the small closet under the stairs. There he would kneel down facing the tabernacle and meditate in the peace and quiet.
The afternoons were similar to the mornings, welcoming priests who came for Confession, comforting the sorrowful, and feeding children. When time permitted Conrad read Scripture passages or the Imitation of Christ. After dinner he would spend more time in adoration or make rosaries — sometimes dozing off to sleep.
Ultimately, his life was united with Christ to such an extent that he weighed every word he spoke, seeking to limit conversation. He regretted that he did not love Christ more and spent hours before the crucifix, reciting the stations of the cross daily. He described this devotion in a letter he wrote to a friend, “The Cross is my book. One look at the Cross teaches me what to do on any occasion.”
He spent all of his days serving Jesus by serving those who came to the door. The day he died, he told his brothers in Christ, “Now I must prepare for eternity.” He received the Sacrament of the Sick and died peacefully on April 21, 1894. His feast is now celebrated on April 21.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)