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Father Heinie and The Cookie Girls

August 15, 2016

In memory of Fr Dick Strass, C.Ss.R. (1933-2004) by Fr Mike

I was contacted in early August to write an article about our AIDS children and their progress. The request came the same day that Father Dick Strass, C.Ss.R., Alaskan and Thailand missionary, breathed his last and returned to the Father. Since Father Dick spent his last two years with the AIDS-ridden and abandoned children of Sarnelli House, it would not be fair to tell the story without him.

 In August 1933, Edward and Agnes Strass had a baby boy and named him Richard George. Dick had an uncle who was a Redemptorist priest, Father George, so it was only fitting that Dick follow Uncle George's footsteps, and enroll in St. Joseph's Preparatory College in Kirkwood, Missouri at the age of 14. In Dick's second year at Kirkwood, tragedy struck. Up in Lombard, Illinois, a bad storm was brewing, so Dick's mother, Agnes, took raincoats and goulashes to school for Dick's siblings. She crossed railroad tracks on foot and was hit from behind by a train, which killed her instantly. The family was devastated, but the accident made them a close-knit family, which was to stand Dick in good stead in the future. He made his way through the Redemptorist education system and was ordained in 1960. In 1962 Dick bid farewell to his family and went to the mission of "Siam".

In his first stint in Thailand, 11 years, Dick was stationed for eight years in the "Fingernail Creek" area, situated 180 kilometers downriver from the provincial capital of Nongkhai, Northeast Thailand. It was during this time Dick picked up a nickname he would carry to the grave. In those days a priest's street garb consisted of a blue shirt with a cross and gray pants. Dick had his blond pompadour cut to a brush cut, and with engineer boots and the uniform, looked like a poster boy for the Hitlerjugend. His friend and future companion to the Alaskan missions, Father Bob Wells, dubbed him "Heinie the Kraut" or "Heinie the Hun". It was shortened to "Heinie" or "der Heinrich". Those were idyllic days downriver. Due to no roads, travel was by boat or on foot. There was plenty of good fishing or hunting, which was necessary for the food larder. There was no electricity or refrigerators down there. In 1967, Heinie was joined by a greenhorn fresh from the major seminary in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Mike Shea. It was a great four years of cooperation, camaraderie, and mission work.

Father Dick always had migraine headaches, and developed colitis, and then malaria. He finally contracted cerebral malaria, and suffered with recurring bouts of fever and pain. Finally, an American military doctor told him he would be nicknamed "Heinie the Turnip" if he stayed and got cerebral malaria one more time. This and a few other factors led Heinie to reluctantly leave Thailand in August 1973.

I will leave it to others to document the work that Father Dick and Father Bob Wells did in Alaska. Except for three years in Great Falls, Montana, Father Dick busied himself for 26 glorious years with great mission work in Alaska. He flew his own plane and went to the remote Aleutian Islands to fish canneries and administered the Sacraments to isolated factory workers. However, as the years rolled by, the group of Redemptorist on the Kinai Peninsula grew old, retired, or passed away. Close friends, such as Fathers Bob Wells and Thad Dean, passed away and the last few years, Heinie found himself alone. What with his old friend Father Mike Shea now working with adults and children with AIDS, Heinie left Alaska in 2002 to go back to Thailand.

Der Heinrich was 69 years old when he arrived on the banks of the Mekong River in Viengkhuk. He joined a mission area of five parishes and two small mission stations. Four separate facilities tended to the needs of the AIDS adults and children. He began in earnest a refresher course in Thai, and was beginning to be more proficient in Thai than in his first stint in the 1960's

One of Heinie's hobbies in Alaska was woodworking. He found out he could buy the same equipment in Thailand, and often of better quality, than in the States. The nuns had deserted their old kitchen area and Father Mike had it all cleaned out and gave it to Heinie, who would accompany Father Larry Patin shopping for saws, electric planers, a router, lumber, Formica topping, and a myriad of other things Heinie wanted for his shop. Soon, the "Ye Olde Heinie the Kraut Carpenter Shoppe" was churning out cabinets, desks, tables, and other furniture needed for the children. The young men from St. Patrick's Boys' Home were apprenticing with Father Dick.  

        

Rosario Catholic School, of 1,600 students, is on the same compound as the church and the carpenter shop. The superior was nicknamed "Sister Godzilla" by Father Mike. She was a formidable 4'5" tall nun, and prone to uncontrollable fits of rage. Years before, the nuns had told Bishop George they would pay the electric bill of the rectory, church and compound, to repay the spiritual services of the priests. They had not figured the "Ye Olde Carpenter Shoppe" into this factor. What with Heinie's electric saws and planer working all day, plus drills and router, the electric bills soared. Sister Godzilla would issue fatwas from the bowels of her office, but Heinie ground on.

Heinie absolutely hated the saccharine school song of "Chaiyo Rosario", which was played over and over, especially the hour or so before school. One day, Heinie decided to plane 1 x 6 teak boards in his planer, which by that time, had dull blades (Heinie had not yet realized you could turn the blades over for the new sharp side). Father Mike was working out in the gym next to the shop, and Heinie would throw a board into the planer, which would scream and howl, its way down the length of the board. One could smell the wood burning from the dull blades. The sound megaphoned right into the school buildings, drowning out the strains of "Chaiyo Rosario". It was a nerve-wracking sound, and suddenly Sister Godzilla came galloping around the corner of the church, foaming at the mouth, uttering dire threats of jihad. Although the duel between Heinie and Godzilla was ongoing, Father Dick was genuinely saddened when she was transferred.

But, it was with the AIDS kids that Father Dick fell in love, and the kids in turn learned quickly to love and trust him. Father Dick made furniture for the House of Hope, where new youngsters and sick ones are quarantined. The House of Hope will hold anywhere from two to three children up to 20 children, depending on whether they have TB, measles, chicken pox, or shingles. No matter what disease they had, Heinie would be there to hold a sick child, feed, and entertain them. The nurse at Sarnelli House wanted a medicine cabinet for the 57 AIDS children, and Father Dick made a cabinet so each child would have a slot with his/hers day's dosage of anti-retroviral medicine. What with furniture, plumbing, and electrical work, Father Dick was at all the houses. He was never in a hurry, and would sit and hold the wee ones, listening intently as they prattled on about their problems and hurts. A blind girl named, Tadum or "Black Eyes", absolutely adored Father Dick and Father Dick, her. He would spend long periods of time with blind and deaf little Jo, a victim of a botched abortion. What with 104 children, some fall between the cracks and no one really treats them special. Those were the ones Father Dick would seek out. But it was the "cookie" girls that bonded with Father Dick in a special way.

At the Girls' Hospice in Viengkhuk, there were 32 girls from the ages of three to 17, and discipline was a problem with the older ones. The housemother and her two assistants were not programmed to deal with older girls who were sick of a regimented life. Girls were sneaking out of school and going to town; they had boyfriends, and secretly bought cheap cellular phones. They were literally starving themselves to pay for monthly phone cards from their noon meal money.

Heinie noted the problem and began baking classes. The change in the atmosphere and morale was unbelievable. Cakes, cookies, brownies, and pies were being churned out and gobbled by the girls. The TV would be blaring and Heinie manning the oven, while girls of various ages would be slam-dunking donuts. When Father Larry Patin went on a home leave, Heinie went to his parish up in the mountains with the van, accompanied by beaming, little catechist "wannabes" with buckets of fruit, cookies, cakes, and brownies, plus soft drinks. The discipline problems stopped. The girls found something enjoyable to do, and found Father Dick a ready listener who didn't criticize and judge.

What with Thai lessons, trips to town with the kids to go shopping, cabinets to be hammered together and installed, and the love of the kids, and constant kidding from the confreres, Heinie was in his element. Then a simple check for skin cancer found that the cancer had metastasized from his lung. The diagnosis in a Thai hospital was questioned in the States, and Heinie returned triumphant from a preaching date that allowed us to add a story to St. Michael's Nursery.

 

But, in the spring of 2004, it all came to an end, when it became apparent that the diagnosis of the Thai doctors was correct, and the cancer was now in Heinie's brain. Father Dick went home on May 11, 2004 for further treatment, but the cancer had moved on and he died on August 6, 2004.

Heinie was cremated after the funeral Mass, and Father Leo Travis, who tended to Heinie in his last end days, brought the ashes back to a grieving staff and children at Sarnelli. A prayer room is being built, and Heinie's ashes will rest there. His spirit will hopefully hover over and tend to the little flock of lonesome children whom he left so soon.

The monsoons are over now, and the children have harvested our rice fields. Mornings and evenings have a chill to them, and the fog rolls in from the river. In the late evening, I sometimes stand on the river bank and in my mind's eye, I can see a van roll silently up in front of the church, and Heinie with his long peaked fisherman's cap waddling out of the house, with buckets of fruit, cookies, and brownies, followed by the little people. Not the "Cookie Girls", but by Knock, Kirk, Dutch Michael, Nam Fon, and a few other of our Outreach babies, all of whom have died from AIDS. They all excitedly mount the van; the door slides shut, and the vehicle slowly glides off into the mist.

Bon voyage, Heinie. Auf Wiedersehen.

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