TWO RIVERS — For much of his upbringing, Frank Birr knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
“From youth all the way through high school, my intention was to be a priest. There was no doubt about it,” said Birr, who saw three uncles and two first cousins serve as priests.
But during his freshman year at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Birr’s plans for the priesthood changed as “it didn’t take long to realize God had other plans for me.”
Fast forward more than 40 years, and Birr remains devoted to serving the Catholic community, albeit in a different way — as a deacon.
Birr, 61, will be appointed to St. Peter the Fisherman Parish in his hometown of Two Rivers, as well as Roncalli High School, Manitowoc, where he has worked since 1998.
“Becoming a deacon, I feel it’s kind of fulfilling that original dream that I had but bringing out what God had intended all along,” he said. “Service to others has always been important to me. That part of it is a natural fit for me. So I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
Birr was baptized and confirmed at Holy Redeemer, which eventually merged with three other parishes to form St. Peter the Fisherman.
His late parents, Willard and Mary, were devout Catholics who regularly attended Mass with their 13 children, of which Birr is the eighth oldest.
Birr’s mother came from an even larger family, one that had 17 children. Three of them became priests — Fr. Leo Schmitt, Fr. John Schmitt and Fr. Henry Schmitt. All have since passed away.
Two of Birr’s first cousins are also priests — Fr. Jerry Taddy and Fr. Carl Schmitt (who will be vesting Birr at the ceremony).
Birr experienced a mixture of Catholic and public school education. He went to public school for kindergarten and first grade before taking classes at Holy Redeemer for grades two through five. He returned to public school for grades seven and eight before moving on to Roncalli High School, from which he graduated.
Birr enrolled at St. Norbert College as a religious studies major, but his focus shifted to music his first year. He received a bachelor’s degree in music in 1983. Not long after he was hired as the choir director at St. Luke, one of the four parishes that became St. Peter the Fisherman. There, he met his future wife, Sandy, who was the church organist. They have four adult children.
Music had always been instrumental in Birr’s life.
“As little kids, we would gather around the piano and mom would play and we’d sing,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I’ve been called to do something in that field.”
In 1998, Birr returned to his alma mater, Roncalli, to teach choir. Now, as choir director, he oversees the freshmen, concert and oratorio choirs. In addition, he teaches “Introduction to Religion” to exchange students who don’t have a background in religion.
“Being at Roncalli, it nourishes,” he said. “We pray at the beginning of every class. It reinforces who we are and what we do. The commitment to each other as a community reinforces what we talk about in diaconate formation. The leadership we have at school is fantastic.”
Birr said thoughts of becoming a deacon became more prevalent about six years ago.
“The thought has always been there since I wasn’t being called to the priesthood,” he said. “Then one day (in 2012), I was thinking, ‘I wonder if there’s an age limit on being a deacon.’ I looked on the diocesan website and it said the age limit was 56. Well, I was 55 at the time, so I thought I better look into it right away.”
Birr spoke with Deacon Paul Grimm, director of the diaconate for the Diocese of Green Bay at the time, and he has been journeying toward the vocation ever since.
“The past six years have been kind of a whirlwind,” Birr said. “It started out nice and easy and slow — spiritual and informative in the early stages. It gave you that ground to put your feet on and grow from.
“Things got a little busier the last couple of years, when I decided to take the track of getting my master’s degree in theological studies as part of the formation process. It had been a long time since I sat in a desk, so working on a master’s was a real challenge. But it has been a wonderful process.”
Birr will receive his master’s degree from St. Norbert College on May 13, the day after he is ordained a deacon. “It’s going to be an exciting weekend,” he said.
Birr said many people, especially family, have played important roles in helping him become the person he is today. He wants to honor them by faithfully serving St. Peter the Fisherman, Roncalli High School and with anyone who needs his assistance.
“Family has been an important part of what prepared me to take this step,” he said. “Coming from large families, you learn to deal with different people and see that everyone’s needs are different. And raising your own family, you see that needs are different.
“Sometimes we challenge each other. But that commitment to each other has always been there and always will.”
Other deacon candidates include: