MARYKNOLL, New York -- Brother Conrad J. Fleisch from Topeka, Kansas, will celebrate his 100th birthday on Friday, May 13th. For 64 years, Brother Conrad has served the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the overseas mission society of the U.S. Catholic Church, and now he will become the first Maryknoll Society member to celebrate 100 years. Brother Conrad’s birthday will arrive almost seven weeks before Maryknoll celebrates its centennial founding.
Brother Conrad’s philosophy for a long life is simple. “I just keep breathing,” he said. The missioner, who walks unassisted and reads The New York Times every day, quietly indicated that becoming the first Society member to reach 100 could be considered an achievement. “It’s good to be number one in something,” he quipped.
Following Jesus in serving the poor and others in need in 26 countries, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (http://maryknollsociety.org) is commemorating its centennial during 2011 with the theme of The Gift of Mission – The Maryknoll Journey. All missionaries, including Brother Conrad, will celebrate the Maryknoll centennial as the Society continues its journey into the next 100 years to share God’s love and the Gospel in combating poverty, providing healthcare, building communities and promoting human rights. Maryknoll’s 100th Foundation Day is June 29.
Early Days In Topeka:
The youngest of the three sons and three daughters of Charles Fleisch and Eleanor Wyngert, the future missioner was welcomed into his family as Maryknoll’s co-founders prepared to travel to Rome to receive approval for the new mission society from Pope Pius X. However, it would be more than 30 years before Brother Conrad, who was baptized George, would join Maryknoll and take the religious name of Conrad.
Brother Conrad first had to attend grade school through eighth grade at Holy Name, his local parish that is part of the Kansas City diocese. Then, he attended Topeka Catholic High School located, at that time, in downtown Topeka. It has since been moved a number a miles away and renamed Hayden High School. Brother Conrad graduated during 1929.
After delivering groceries for a local merchant who catered to the well-to-do of Topeka for two and one-half years, he and a friend decided to open a business that lasted about seven years.
“It started out as a grocery store,” recalled Brother Conrad. Kansas, he explained, was still a dry state after Prohibition, but after Congress declared 3.2 percent beer non-intoxicating, Kansas approved its sale and he and his partner turned the store into a tavern.
“We served beer and sandwiches and even had a dance floor,” said Brother Conrad. “It was a real neighborhood place known as The Dutch Goose. They called me ‘Dutch,’ because of my German background, and [my friend] was a good athlete so they called him ‘Goose’ after Goose Goslin, a popular baseball player of the time.”
World War II Veteran:
Brother Conrad left the business the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was 30 and served with the U.S. Navy as a torpedo man. He was assigned to the Atlantic Theatre aboard a small carrier that tracked down the first German wolf pack (submarines). He later served aboard a destroyer escort in the Pacific.
Late in the war, while escorting ships to Okinawa, he found himself on the periphery of one of the famous Pacific typhoons of 1945 that severally damaged many U.S. ships. About this same time, Brother Conrad also was offered a promotion to chief petty officer. He turned it down, however, thinking he might have to remain in the navy for many more years.
Brother Conrad’s military service followed the footsteps of others in his family who first helped the country gain independence and then helped preserve the union. Ancestors on his mother’s side fought with Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War and one of them is interred at Valley Forge. His maternal grandfather from Pennsylvania served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Along with other veterans, he received about 150 acres of land in Missouri, which he held onto for one year before selling it to move to Kansas.
After completing his navy service, Brother Conrad settled in Southern California. He spent one year overhauling diesel engines on the Santa Fe Railroad for trains on the Chicago to Los Angeles route. That’s when his religious vocation began to take shape.
“Being away from home and all the people you know makes you think of what you want to do,” said Brother Conrad. “I remembered the place called Maryknoll from the magazine my mother used to get.”
He even pictured the coupon in the magazine that read “Our address is easy: Maryknoll, New York.” He wrote for information and joined the mission society during 1947.
“I was almost 36 years old,” he said. “Many guys in our class were ex-servicemen.”
For most of the next 30 years, Brother Conrad supervised building maintenance at Maryknoll institutions throughout the United States. Though most Maryknoll Society members serve overseas, Brother Conrad said he always felt he was just as much a missioner while serving at home.
“In any organization, every person is important,” he explained. “I was contributing to the organization by doing what I do best. The family that prays together stays together,” he said, adding, “The best gift I have received is great help all along the way.”
During recent years, Brother Conrad has made his home within the Maryknoll retirement community, first in California and currently at the Maryknoll Mission Center in Ossining, New York, about 50 miles north of New York City.