by Roxanne King
He was known as the “holy porter” for his 41 years answering the door at a famed Marian shrine in Altotting, Germany. The humble Capuchin lay-brother, St. Conrad of Parzham, wouldn’t be displeased that this year his feast day will likely go unnoticed by most of the universal Church as it falls on Easter (April 21), which takes precedence. However, he remains a saint just the same.
In December, to mark the 200th anniversary of St. Conrad’s birth, the U.S. Capuchin province named after him published an English translation of the book Conrad of Parzham: Friend of Man and Man of God. Brother Niklaus Kuster, O.F.M. Cap., of Switzerland wrote and published the book in German in 2017. Its English version was edited by Father Blaine Burkey, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver. The biography—the first on Conrad to be published in English since 1936—is a joyful recollection of the saint’s life and his relevance for today.
“It’s interesting that a great many of the saints of the Capuchin order are not priests,” said Father Blaine, province archivist. “There’s a lot more lay-brothers than there are priests among our saints. That is our first vocation: to be brothers, not just to one another, but also to mankind. He was a great example of that.” Father Blaine’s admiration and affection for the saint is tied to Conrad’s connection to the local province. “Our province was once part of a larger province called St. Augustine, which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Colorado border,” Father Blaine said. “It was founded by friars from Bavaria who came over in 1873 intending for this to be a mission territory and also to be a place to move to if they were shut down by the government [as a result of anti-religion laws]. “The friars who came over were acquaintances of Conrad. When they left the friary at Altotting, he was the doorkeeper who saw them off. In 1977 when the province was divided into two, the eastern part kept the name St. Augustine Province, but we chose Conrad as our patron.”
Born on Dec. 22, 1818, to a well-to-do farming couple in Parzham, located in southern Bavaria, Conrad was first known as John Birndorfer. The second youngest of 12 children, John was known as a prayerful, devout child who as a youth and young man fasted much and made frequent pilgrimages. Even inclement weather couldn’t deter him from trekking for hours each Sunday to attend Mass and devotions at several churches and shrines. At age 31, after a year and half postulancy with the Capuchin friars of Altotting, he waived his right to take over the family farm, distributed his inheritance and became Brother Conrad. In 1852, after completing his novitiate, he was appointed porter of the Altotting friary, which serves the popular national shrine of Bavaria to the Blessed Mother. He kept that position for over four decades.
“Most Capuchins don’t do that, they move from place to place. We’re not like monks with vows of stability at one place,” Father Blaine said. “But he did that job well for 41 years.” A unique aspect of the book about St. Conrad are letters from the author to the saint interspersed throughout the biography that reflect on the porter’s life and on contemporary society. “How is it that you, a simple porter—a doorkeeper—have been declared a saint by the Catholic Church?” the author writes. “You didn’t build anything. You didn’t write a book. Nothing else that you did is still tangible today that would cause you to be ‘immortalized.’ It is your life that is the message across the centuries. It is your faith that makes you seem great.”
The position of porter at Altotting had a lot of responsibility as daily up to 200 people—pilgrims or local poor—would knock on the door with requests ranging from wanting items blessed, to seeking confession, to needing food or drink. In the biography, Brother Niklaus notes that in addition to serving the visitors, who could be difficult, Conrad also dealt with envy among the friars for the coveted position, which could have gone to older, more experienced porters. However, Conrad carried out his duties from early morning to late evening with patience, humility and generosity.
“People would do all sorts of things to annoy and provoke him—kids with pranks—and some people were mean,” Father Blaine said. “He would just take it and move on, as he did with a homeless man who threw his bowl of soup on the floor. Conrad just cleaned it up and went and got another bowl of soup for him. That’s what he’s known for.
“His spirituality was centered on Jesus Christ,” added Father Blaine. “In a letter, Conrad wrote: ‘The method I use to practice humility and gentleness is nothing other than the cross. The cross is my book. One look at the cross teaches me what to do on any occasion.’”
Conrad died in 1894 and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934, one year after Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. His canonization drew great attention across the nation as he was the first German canonized in nearly 200 years. In God’s providence, the Church honored a simple porter—a brother-servant—as a heroic model of virtue at the same time Hitler’s regime was promoting Nazi domination propaganda of “the master race.” Brother Niklaus writes that the canonization so provoked the German authorities that they then banned the freedom to assemble. “He lived over a hundred years ago but his message to his time is just as powerful to ours,” Father Blaine said.