Meet St. Conrad, patron of Denver’s Capuchins

Jared Staudt

You may know the Capuchin friars from their longstanding service within the Archdiocese of Denver. They serve at Annunciation Parish and the Denver Catholic recently highlighted their new food truck to serve the homeless. The average person is more likely to recognize the drink, Cappuccino, named after the friars, or even to encounter the Hooded Capuchin monkey on display at the Denver Zoo. Capuchins, however, are a group of Franciscans formed during the reforms of the Counter Reformation in 1528, emphasizing contemplative prayer and greater austerity.

Denver is the center for the St. Conrad Province of the Capuchins, which has been experiencing growth in the number of young friars in formation. One of their veteran friars, Fr. Blaine Burkey, author of Julia Greeley’s biography, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart, recently edited a biography of the province’s namesake, Conrad of Parzham: Friend of Man and Man of God, written by a Swiss Capuchin brother, Niklaus Kuster (Capuchin Provide of Mid-America, 2018). The book provides a short and accessible overview of his life, as well as the author’s reflections on how St. Conrad’s witness relates to today’s culture through letters to the saint.

St. Conrad (1818-94) was a German farmer, born John Birndorfer, who, after experiencing a late vocation at age 30, spent the rest of his life serving as porter to the Capuchin friary at the great Mariana shrine of Altötting in Bavaria. Because he spent almost half of his life on the farm, Conrad gives us a profound witness of holiness in the world, as well as his life in the friary. He assumed responsibilities on the farm as a young man, as his parents passed away when he was still relatively young. He would not wear a hat in the fields, because he treated them as a place of prayer and tried to maintain contemplative silence during his work. He also regularly visited the surrounding country parishes each weekend, engaging in long, prayerful walks.

He felt joy in joining the Capuchin order, now able to dedicate his entire life in service of God and neighbor as a lay brother. After traveling for a few years to surrounding friaries for formation, he settled into his role as porter of the friary at Altötting, the largest shrine in southern Germany, for the next forty-one years. As porter, he greeted the tens of thousands of pilgrims who visited the friars each year. He was known for his patience, attention, and the bread and beer he distributed each day (for which reason I offered him as a patron saint in my book, The Beer Option). Like his work in the fields, he kept his contemplative spirit in the midst of his work, even when the crowds proved loud and rowdy. His long days included ample time for prayer, as he rose before the other friars to open the church and eventually the door for the guests.

St. Conrad offers us a great example of humility, love, and service, as well as staying prayerful even in a busy daily schedule. His new biography offers us a chance to meet him and to ask for his prayers for ourselves and our Capuchin community. The book is available locally at Gerkens Religious Supplies and online at amazon.com.

COMING UP: Franciscan food truck nourishes souls and bodies

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In November, Capuchin Franciscan Friars serving in Denver joined the increasingly popular food truck trend, but with some key twists.

Like their food truck counterparts, they are drawing fans offering something special — in their case, fresh, healthy wraps loaded with lean meat and veggies. Unlike other culinary roadies, their food is free.

The main difference about the friars’ food truck? It’s not really about the food, but about presence.

“On the face of it our food truck is seeing to the physical need of people, but on a deeper level it serves a spiritual need and even an evangelical purpose,” said Father Joseph Mary Elder, O.F.M. Cap., head of the new ministry.

“Our charism is to be little brothers to people—friars minor,” he explained. “We want to use the food truck as an opportunity to enter into relationships with the poor.”

Painted Franciscan brown with colorful artwork depicting local friars engaged in ministry as well as Saints Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio, and Blessed Solanus Casey, the truck includes white text on the back acknowledging partnership with the Routzon Family Foundation, while messaging on the sides identifies it as belonging to the Capuchins and describing their mission as “Messengers of God’s mercy” and “Brothers to those in need.”

“It’s not only to feed the body, but to feed the soul, that’s what the food truck ministry is about,” said Cindy Routzon, secretary of the foundation and wife to its founder Ed Routzon.

The foundation bought the new F59 P700 14-foot Morgan Olson truck and, with additional aid from Regis University, has funded the food. Volunteers, including youth ministry groups, have helped put the lunches together. Some volunteers also help the friars distribute the food.

Two Sundays a month the truck heads to downtown sites where the homeless gather. There, friars and volunteers hand out sack lunches and beverages. They also give out seasonal items those living on the street may need such as hats, gloves and socks. Resources the poor can avail themselves of such as medical and mental health services are listed on the lunch bags.

“At first the people were hesitant because they saw a food truck and thought they had to pay,” said Capuchin Brother Jude Quinto, recalling the truck’s first run Nov. 25. “But when they saw friars in brown habits running around, then they knew what we were up to and a crowd started forming.”

That day the friars handed out 300 turkey wraps to some 200 people. They now distribute up to 350 wraps. One Sunday, they gave away wraps and tamales, which was also a hit.

It seems they can’t make a mistake.

“We did some vegetarian wraps by accident once, one guy in particular loved it,” Father Joseph said. “We try to keep the meals healthy. We don’t want to perpetuate the health problems many homeless have with diabetes and other medical issues.”

Annunciation Church parishioners Audrey Wakely, 25, and her husband Connor Wakeley, 24, are among the volunteers who have helped make and distribute the lunches.

“It was eye-opening to see what the homeless community is like,” Audrey Wakeley said. “They were so nice — and very grateful. We liked interacting with and putting a face to the homeless. I think a lot of times, many of us try not to talk to them.”

Like the homeless, the imprisoned and the elderly they minister to, the Capuchins themselves are largely invisible to the wider community even though they’ve been ministering in the archdiocese for 41 years.

“This ministry creates an opportunity to share our brotherhood with other people,” Father Joseph said. “It’s also a good way to let people know we’re here.”

In unveiling the new ministry at the orders’ benefit gala in October, Father Christopher Gama, O.F.M. Cap., said the food truck ministry aims to answer the new evangelization call of St. John Paul II to find innovative ways to spread the Gospel in the 21st century.

“This new initiative is about that,” Father Christopher said.  “To bring Christ into the world in a fresh new way.”

Those involved affirm that’s the case.

“I was thinking of Father Solanus Casey during the [first] trip,” Brother Jude said. “He and other friars had opened a soup kitchen and we’re doing that, only ours is mobile and it’s going to where the people are. It’s like a modern-day soup kitchen on wheels.

“The preaching we do is the love we show,” he added. “That’s the image of God we give: God who’s present.”

Among those accepting a lunch that day was a man identified only as Greg. He echoed the comments of other recipients who raved about the healthful, tasty meal — and he expressed hope to see the food truck again.

“I’m very happy to see the food truck and the Capuchin Franciscans out here,” he said. “It’s so needed. It’s wonderful that someone somewhere in the Catholic Church had this beautiful idea to do this. I hope to see more of this.”

Portions of this report originally appeared in the Capuchin Franciscans’ Winter 2018 publication The Porter.