Father Harry Thiel CSsR
First Mass Father Harry Thiel CSsR, Apostle to the Hmong Hmong Center Father Harry with Pope John Paul II Father Harry Thiel CSsR, Apostle to the Hmong
Apostle to the Hmong
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Father Harry Thiel, CSsR, inspired Hmong to embrace Catholicism


Father Harry Thiel
Father Harry Thiel

Redemptorist Father Harry Thiel, a Seattle native whose 43 years of missionary work in Thailand saw him draw thousands of Hmong to Catholicism, died Oct. 11. He was 76.

Father Thiel, who grew up in St. Edward Parish and then Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Seattle, had been living in residence at Sacred Heart with his fellow Redemptorists since returning from Thailand two years ago. Last summer, he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest.

He was assigned to Thailand in 1958 and four years later began his long-running apostolate with the Hmong, a hilltribe people. He taught the Hmong the Catholic faith and they taught him how to survive in the forest, he said in a 2004 interview with The Catholic Northwest Progress.

He estimated then that there were 5,000 Hmong Catholics as a result of his ministry and that of the catechists he had trained. He also founded the Hmong Catholic Center to educate and catechize the people.

Those whose lives he touched included Chakrit Chuleekorn, a Hmong seminarian who is to be ordained to the priesthood in Bangkok later this month. Chakrit credited Father Thiel for where he is today. "Father Harry my hero," he wrote in an e-mail to Redemptorist Father Joe Maier, who is ministering in Thailand. "He helped me and today I have finished my education without him I will not became a Catholic and a Redemptorist."

"I am proud to carry his mission to his people."

Father Thiel was among the first to assist and make the world aware of the Hmong refugees pouring into Thailand from Laos and Vietnam after they had helped the U.S. against the communists.

Through the local papal nuncio, he alerted Pope Paul VI to the situation, and soon assistance from the pope's Peter's Pence Collection was on the way. Father Thiel assisted in six refugee camps, and some of those refugees later relocated to Western Washington. In 1984, he and his catechists had a private audience with Pope John Paul II during the papal visit to Thailand.

The genial priest was known as a humble and conscientious man, dedicated to service to the very end.

"He had a great love for the ministry and the people," said Redemptorist Father Ivan Dawson, Sacred Heart pastor. He recalls that Father Thiel suffered greatly from deteriorating feet and legs. But though he sought treatment for his ailment, he was uncomplaining, apparently considering it his cross to bear, Father Dawson said.

Dolores Usher, Father Thiel's sister and a resident of Renton, said her brother was a true representative of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists. "He was humble and loved the poor, and worked for the poor, and didn't look for vain glory," she said. "He was happy in his job, and never tired."

 "Everybody he touched, he helped in one way or another, whether he knew it or not."
She said people remarked to her at his funeral that he would advise them at the end of confession to "always stay close to the Lord, because you never know when you're going to die."

In addition to his sister, Father Thiel is survived by numerous nieces, nephews and cousins.
A funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 16 at Sacred Heart Church.

Remembrances may be made in his name to the Hmong community, c/o Sacred Heart Church, 205 Second Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98109-4817.




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