(Editor’s note: Father Thomas Stratman spoke about his call to the priesthood with members of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Vocations Committee and The Catholic Messenger.)
Nearly 70 years after presiding at his first Mass, Father Thomas Stratman finds that saying Mass every day continues to be “always new and always beautiful!”
Through the years, Fr. Stratman, 92, served at nine different parishes in the diocese and for six different bishops. He retired at age 70 but continued ministry at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and then at St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass until 2008. Today, he serves as a proofreader for The Catholic Messenger in addition to other volunteer activities.
“The process of becoming a priest is not a straight line. There are detours along the way. But that’s how God works — in the mystery,” Fr. Stratman said.
Born Dec. 20, 1925, to Fred and Elma Stratman, Fr. Stratman recalls that as a boy, “I thanked my parents for naming me Thomas. I was baptized by our pastor, Father Thomas Francis Galligan, whom my parents thought a lot of. I later learned a great deal about St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, by reading St. John’s Gospel, chapter 20: 24-30. I think it is one of the most personal and graphic and encouraging passages in the Bible.”
As a boy, Fr. Stratman didn’t give much thought to what he was going to do in adulthood. “I was too busy swimming, hiking, biking, playing sports and doing homework, trying to obey my parents and teachers, going to school parties, dances and movies and growing up with three brothers (Urban and Bill, now deceased, and John).”
The brothers attended the parish school, St. Paul’s in Burlington. “We were taught by the Sisters of Charity, BVM. We received a solid, good-on-the-basics education which equipped us for the future. The parish priests and teaching sisters had a significant influence on me of the importance of God in my life,” Fr. Stratman said.
He enjoyed being a Mass server and taking part in the religious celebrations of the liturgical year. “The Catholic faith was important to our family and we went to Sunday Mass as a family. When I was 17, it dawned on me that God might be calling me to be a priest.
“I read books about heroic missionaries working to bring people to Christ. I was attracted to the apparent adventurous life of missionaries. When I told my pastor that I would like to be a Franciscan missionary, he said: ‘Well, I can’t help you.’ That was a sneaky way to get me to say, ‘OK, I’ll study for the Diocese of Davenport.’”
Fr. Stratman entered the seminary at age 17 with the blessings of Bishop Henry Rohlman of the Davenport Diocese. It was during World War II, when St. Ambrose College dorms in Davenport were being used by the Navy. So Fr. Stratman studied at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
“When I got to college seminary, I was surprised to find out that for our freshman and sophomore years we could go to school dances and parties. I took part in those college outings.”
While priest formation is generally an eight-year process, Fr. Stratman and fellow seminarians continued their studies year-round and finished in seven years. “It was wartime and things were hurried up.”
His older brother, Bill, had joined the Air Force and served as a radio gunner. “He flew in 71 bombing missions over Europe. I think maybe he felt a little guilty about all those who died. After he got out, he used the GI Bill and went to the University of Iowa for an engineering degree. A little while after that, he decided to become a priest.” The younger Fr. Stratman, who was ordained in 1950 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, speaks with admiration of his late brother’s ministry as a priest.
The younger Fr. Stratman celebrated his first Mass at St. Paul Church in Burlington. He served in the diocese as an assistant pastor for 17 years and then became a pastor. In addition to his volunteer activities, Fr. Stratman gets together with his brother and sister-in-law, John and Betty, who live in Bettendorf. John is active in the Serra Club of Davenport, which promotes vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
“I’m very thankful to have been chosen by God for the priesthood,” Fr. Stratman said. “God has provided me with a wonderful life and I feel I have helped many people. I have always wanted to follow where I thought God was leading me.”