Shortly after I passed under the Karlstor, the prosaic medieval gate that leads into Munich’s city center, my senses were bombarded by the trendy merchandise posing provocatively in the windows of retail empires. As much as my inner-diva wanted to reply to their beckoning call with a quick embrace and a credit card swipe, I averted my gaze and stared in the opposite direction. To my immense fortune and surprise, my eyes turned directly to this most unusual building, which stood out from its plain attachments like an Irish redhead in a crowd of German blondes. The church, identifiable by a Mary and Child statue serenely seated on a crescent moon just above the main door, looked like a Baroque advertisement for Pepto-Bismol with a rose-colored façade, white pilasters, large windows, and a pediment resembling a tiara. I reasoned that any church seemingly designed by the Princess of Pepto must have something interesting inside. My travel instincts were correct, but little did I know how inspirational my spontaneous detour would be!
The upper sanctuary of Bürgersaalkirche (The Citizen’s Hall Church) was truly beautiful. The white-washed walls were neatly decorated with swirling patterns in shimmering golds, deep reds, and muted greens, which served as a ‘modestly’ ornate recreation of 18th century Baroque splendor, which came after the destruction suffered here and by many other historic buildings during World War II. The rectangular room was spacious and evoked a sense of its former role as the Bürgersaal, or Citizen Hall, founded by the Men’s Congregation of Mary in the early 1700s. Yet, for all its ceremonial stateliness, I discovered a true haven for peaceful reverie underneath the lofty meeting hall in the lower sanctuary.
Relatively unadorned, the tiny chapel of the lower sanctuary reminded me of a wine cellar with its low arched ceilings and no widows. Placed along the niches of the stone walls, near life-sized statues of the Stations of the Cross reminded visitors of Jesus Christ’s final hours of his life. Though vivid and gruesomely captivating, these statues were not the focal point of the room. In the center aisle between thick and curving columns, a delicate wooden railing outlined the heart of the church – a tomb at the base of a small altar, the final resting place of Father Rupert Mayer.
Born in 1876, Rupert Mayer became a Jesuit priest by the turn of the 20th century and served the citizens of Munich for many years. At the outbreak of World War I, he was compelled to serve the active German troops on the line of battle. He would crawl through the trenches to comfort and administer the Sacraments to young soldiers. As a result of his bold faith, he lost a leg from a grenade explosion. Nonetheless, Father Mayer did not allow his injury to stop him from serving the poor and needy upon his return to Munich. “The Limping Priest” became a beloved resident of the city during the years following WWI.
As the Nazi Party rose to power in the 1930s, Father Mayer recognized a need to oppose some of the ideals and propaganda put forth by the party. As a result of his dedication to defend the Church and proclaim his faith, Mayer was imprisoned more than once, sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and eventually exiled to Ettal Abbey.
At the war’s end, he returned to his beloved people in May of 1945 and continued his work of reconciliation and compassion for the marginalized. While preaching on a November Sunday of that same year, he died of an apparent stroke.
Such a legacy deserves to be remembered, and Father Rupert Mayer’s extraordinary life of service was memorialized when Pope John Paul II canonized the German priest in 1987. A small museum dedicated to Father Mayer’s life and legacy is tucked away just behind the altar in the lower sanctuary of Bürgersaalkirche. Original manuscripts are displayed next to Mayer’s typewriter. The outline of the saint stands in a glass case. His long black coat, walking cane and iconic black hat stand in place as if he were wearing them. This compelling and mysterious image was enough for me to want to uncover the heart of this man of the church.
Returning from the tiny museum, I took a seat in the creaky wooden pews facing the small altar topped by a crowned and seated Mother Mary holding a scepter with one hand and balancing a baby Jesus with the other. Between the Blessed Virgin and the pews, a slab of stone marked the grave of Father Mayer. I settled into the quiet with the intent on piecing together the life of Mayer I gleaned from the German documentary video (I don’t speak German) and the items in the museum. Yet, it wasn’t long before my ponderings of this venerated person from the past were overtaken by observations of the present.
A small trickle of tourists wandered in, perhaps not knowing what to expect or what they would find. Their footsteps softly collided with the tiles floors and echoed off the archways. They circled the room, snapped a photo or two, and exited without much fanfare. Two rows in front of me, a nun sat reverently for a few minutes of quiet contemplation. A man in work attire bent his knees to the cushion below the altar railing and remained motionless, apparently in deep thought or prayer. One young woman with a baby in a stroller stood off to the side. Tears silently rolled down her cheeks. After a number of hushed minutes had passed, she lit a votive candle and left.
I wondered about these people. Why were they here? What moved them to reflection and even to the point of tears? Was it because of their faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ? Was it in adoration of the Virgin Mary? Or was it in remembrance of Father Rupert Mayer and the life he led?
I do not have the answers to those questions, and I admit that I regret not asking them. When I decided to explore Munich’s historic center that July morning, I did not expect such a touching experience nor the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual implications of my visit. Moving through the hallowed halls was all but surreal. In fact, I’d say it was holy. Furthermore, the life of Rupert Mayer was and will remain an inspirational influence on those who know his story, and a little pink princess called Bürgersaalkirche will be there to tell it to you.