Father Harry Thiel CSsR
I was born on March 10, 1930, in Seattle Washington, U.S.A. It was a Wednesday evening, 8:25 P.M. and it was raining. It was in Providence Hospital. Doctor William Anderson attending. I was the second son, the fourth of six children, born to Peter Joseph Thiel and Alma Julliette Racquet.
They named me Harold, the Viking King, the Strong, the Defender. At my Baptism on March 19 in St. Edward's Church in Hillman City, Rainier Valley, the Pastor, Father Nicholas O'Rafferty from Country Carrie remarked to my Father: "Pete, Harold is not a saint's name, so we'll give him the Christian name of the Saint of the Day: Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth." My Barber Father replied: "Sounds great to me!" I was early nicknamed "Harry" and later in High School "Harry the Horse" after a Damon Runyon character and because of my equine chin.
His Story - In His Own Words
Whether it was because they thought I was precoucious of whether it was to get rid of me, I'm not sure, but my parents entered me in First Grade at Saint Edwards School staffed by the Dominican Sisters of Tacoma, in September of 1935, when I was five and a half years old. It didn't work. My babyhood wasn't played out yet. During the noon lunch break, I snuck through the cyclone fence and ran home to play with my pet frog. I didn't yet know what it meant to play "hookey". I flunked the First Grade. My second try in 1936 was more succesful.
We went to Church as a family on Sunday. I stood on the pew next fo my Mother. Once during the Consecration of the Mass, watching Father elevate the Host, I pointed at him and screamed out at the top of my lungs: "I WANT TO BE THE MAN AT THE ALTAR!" Redfaced and mortified, my Mother cupped her hand over my mouth to silence me. She didn't realize that she was witnessing and trying to stifle the birth of a Vocation. I never wavered. I made my First Communion in St. Edward's Church in May of 1937.
During summer of that year, we moved into Sacred Heart Parish in the Uptown District, staffed by the Redemptorist Fathers. We were close to Church. My Father took me with him to early Mass each morning. A retired Holy Names Sister, seeing me there, asked my father if she could teach me Latin so I could serve the priest at Mass. We limped through the back alley together laboring over "Et cum spiritu tuo" and such. I began serving early morning Mass at the early age of seven. Also Brother William made me a small play altar to practice Mass on. I called the younger ones together, put a scarf around my neck and administered Communion in the form of wafers cut out of ordinary bread. We had a special Requiem the day our bird died. I was taken by the Sisters dedication in the classroom, the Brothers devotion in the Sacristy, the Fathers holiness at the Altar. Likewise, I was mesmerized playing on the nearby waterfront wharfs, where ships from Shanghai, Yokohoma, Hong Kong and Manila docked to be unloaded. The Call of the Orient. My cry: "I WANT TO BE THE MAN AT THE ALTAR!" broadened to be: "I WANT TO BE A MISSIONARY! I WANT TO BE A REDEMPTORIST!" I never wavered.
In 1940 we moved into St. Anne's Parish on top of Queen Anne Hill. I soon began serving the Pastor, Father Thomas Quain. About this time, I received Confirmation from Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy. The World War came.
There were lots of job-openings for tall big-boned teen-agers, I went to work at the Theater. They showed the movie " Anna and the King of Siam". I was fascinated by this far-away, romantic land. To find out more about it and where it was, I sought help from the Public Library. I made a promise to myself that one day I would visit this exotic country of Thailand.
I graduated from Grade School in June of 1944 and entered High School in Holy Redeemer Seminary, Oakland, California. During my first year there, my Father died on his 50th birthday, April 24, 1945, I asked Father Director for the key to the trunk room so that I could pack my bags and return home to help my mother. My older brother had passed away also, so I was the oldest son. Father Manwaring objected: "You'll do no such thing! Go home and bury your Father and return to us here!." My Mother said: "Son, you must listen to the call of God. If God calls you to return to the Seminary or if He calls you to return home to help me. Pray to hear the Voice of God." I returned to the Seminary. To this day, I don't know how my mother managed to feed the family. We were poor, but somehow help always came. This experience taught me early to listen to the Voice of God and follow His Will. Don't be upset by the needs of the world. Seek the will of God first. He will take care of the rest.
In 1948, my senior year in the Seminary, the four Redmptorist fathers, pioneers of the Siam Mission, Fathers Duhart, Godbout, La Riviere, and Kane came to stay at the Seminary to prepare for their departure to Siam. What a thrill to help pack the 100 trunk loads of provisions they had prepared. While waving them "bonvoyage" on board the freighter S.S. Arkansas at the Oakland Pier, my heart was singing: "I too shall follow." The Year 1950-1951 I spent as a novice in Mount St. Clement's College, in Desoto, Missouri, Father James Vance led us half the way until he was chosen to be Provincial. Father Arthur Klyber saw us through to Profession on August 2, 1951 FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS YEAR.
Then it was on to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Immaculate Conception College, for six years of Major Seminary, with Ordination coming afrer the fifth year, for our class, July 2, 1956, FOURTY-FIVE YEARS AGO THIS YEAR. Some weeks Before that day of decision, a devil-devised doubt descended again. I was 26 years old, I had been introduced to Jesus. When I contemplated the Loving Jesus of the Gospel and compared Him to the lowly human that was Harry Thiel, the sensation of unworthiness to receive Holy Orders exploded in my nervous system. The trunk room key syndrome surfaced. I said to Father Perfect: " Please, Father, may I have the key to the trunk room so I can pack my things and return home. I am not worthy to take Holy Orders and masquerade as an "Alter Christus". A wise Father Gregory Lahay countered: "Whatever made you think you were worthy in the first place, so that you could make the comparison of unworthiness now? None of us is worthy. We prostrate ourselves in humble submission before God and respond to His invitation. You mustn't listen to just your own feelings. Don't be duped by the Devil's deceits!" I swallowed the lump in my throat and sought out a quiet place to pray. By the waters edge, I could hear the waves lapping against the shore. I envisioned the face of the Father in Heaven, His index finger pointed at me, His magisterial voice enjoining: "I WANT YOU!" It is now 45 years since that reverie.
The trunk room key remained on its hook. I took Holy Orders and have been a Priest since, I have no regrets, only gratitude and awe at the working of God's plan, His ability to take a lump of clay and make a human, to take the insignificant of this world and raise them to unworldly heights. When I was newly ordained, my comprehension of these mysteries was still sketchy. Now that I am an old-timer at the game, nothing could be clearer, Be still! Let go! All is well.
My desire to be one of the "sons of the pioneers" and follow the four fathers to Siam remained intact. I persevered in my dream, my desire, I kept quiet about it until after my Final Profession in 1954, Father Provinial McCormick came for Visitation. He received each of us individually, warmly: "Is there anything I can do for you?" I fortified my courage with a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament before entering his office. Almost without introduction, before I lost heart and voice, I stammered: "Yes, there is, Father, I want to volunteer, that is, you can send me to the Mission in Siam." I saw "Vow of Obdience" written on his forehead: "Your best move, Brother, is to be quiet and do what you are told!" I did think though, that I could see his face light up, as if maybe I had planted a seed, an idea. Maybe I was worthy of consideration to be sent to the foreign Mission. It took two more years to mature. In my heart of hearts, I had decided that wherever I was sent, whatever I was told to do, I would put my heart and soul into it and do my level best. "Please, Lord, if it be the foreign missions, preferably Siam, I would like to make it my life's work and not let anything divert me from my purpose, not food or drink, climate or weather, language or adversity."
It was only after Ordination to the Priesthood that the dream became a reality. My classmate, Father Bill Bolin, had received his obedience to go to Siam in the Summer of 1956. We knew he would have a companion. But who? Finally one day in November that year, before the noon meal, Father Rector Sutton rose majestically and announced: 'Well, today is another one of those monentuous days in the life of one of our conferes (I thought to my self:
"Be still, my pounding heart! Don't have an attack just now!") A letter has been received from Father Provincial Elliot ot the Oakland Province appointing one of his subjects to Siam: it is none other than...Father Harry Thiel." Everybody knew my hope. After the cheering and clapping subsided, Father Sutton added the anti-climax: "In his honor, we'll have conversation at lunch today." (I thought: "Conversation? Is that the best you can do? Why not a Concert? An Oratorio?") My heart was singing. My Thai confrere, George Phimphisan, (currently of Episcopal fame, for 25 years in Udon this A.D. 2000) came up and congradulated me, then addded: "We begin Ko Kai tomorrow morning: I can pay you back for some of the American slang you have taught me." FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO THIS YEAR.
I needed an operation on my right foot before I could go. The Doctor said: "You shouldn't go to the Foreign Missions with a foot like that!" I warned him: "If you breath a word of this to anybody, it could be your last." He kept my confidence. During the Second Noviciate in 1957 at Pine City, Minnesota, I had as Novice Master one of the finest men I have ever known, Father Mike Pathe. I pay homage to his memory here.
On April 14, 1958, I set foot for the first time on Siamese soil. Siam, now Thailand, at last! The strange sights delighted my eyes, the pungent aromas tickled my nose, the raucous noises bombarded my ears. This land shall be my land. These people shall be my people. I shall learn to make my home with them, to be one of them. But first, I must learn to speak with them. Father Vice-Provincial Cotant took us to study at the St. Gabriel Brothers Assumption College, Sriracha, to study with the great Brother Ludovico, a most devout, devoted, and dedicated man: "I am at your service, Father." But God saw fit to cut short this language study. In December of 1958, I agreed to accompany Brother Montfort as chaplain to the students on a trip to South Thailand and beyond. In Krabi Province, our bus went off the road and overturned in a ravine. I came to with a compound fracture of my right thigh. When we finally got back to Bangkok.
I spent 72 days in a cast, on the flat of my back, in old St. Louis Hospital, nursed back to life by Mere Henri-Dominque, Sister Dympana, and Sister Josephine.Besides my concerned confreres, visits from Bishop Chorin, Father Langer, and Father del La Torre buoyed up my spirits. I countered the rumor "Maybe he should go back to the States?" with "Don't you dare." After four months of recuperation at Holy Redeemer in Bangkok, I was sent to join the new community in Khon Kaen.
I wanted to know my adopted country first hand, so each year during my vacation I visited a different part of Thailand. In 1962, this took me to Chiang Mai, I had met Bishop La Coste in Bangkok in 1960. He told me about the work of the Betharam Fathers for the Karen Tribal People in the Northern Mountains and invited me to visit. Father Longdais welcome me warmly at Sacred Heart Cathedral and arranged for me to accompany the student Pedi to Macpon. It was there that I first met Fathers Sequinotte and Bonat. Their work made a deep inpression on me. My final night, I told them: "I plan to return to I-san and request permission from my Superior to join you in the work for the Karen in the North." Father Sequinotte countered: "WHY DON'T YOU GO TO THE MEO (HMONG) THAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR OWN VICARIATE OF UDON?" "What?" I exclamed, "You mean we have hilltribe people right in our own Vicarate of Udon?" It was electric! The lights flicked on. My future flashed before me. I returned to Udon and made overtures to inaugurate and Apostolate among the Hmong People of the Luey mountains. Initially, I thought I heard the old refrain: "Your best move, Father is..." but I thought I saw a glint in Monsignor Duhart's eye. If so, he implemented it in 1964 by assigning me Pastor of Lucy Province with the commission in his letter of appointment to visit the Hmong and see if an apostolate among them held promise. The Vice Provincial Father Lowery concurred in this assignment. And so began the Mission to the Hmong. THIRTY-SIX YEARS AGO THIS YEAR.
I made my first visit to the Hmong in June of 1964. I thought I would die of dehydration climbing Mount Tham Berk with and over-loaded knapsack, stuffed with rosaries, medals, crucifixes, holy pictures. I guess I thought these animists would be interested in our religious articles. What I forgot in my packing was a change of clothes and drinking water. Upon my arrival in the deserted village, an old grandma recognized my need for a drink and graciously offered me water, although the two of us spoke no common language, My visits to the Hmong were sporadic in 1964 and 1965. I did obtain the services of the Hmong Cathechist Yaj Zoov Ntxheb from Laos through the good offices of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Vientiane. During a visit to the village of Khi Thao, the family of Ntxoov Xyooj Yaj decided to break with the worship of spirits and homage the Lord of Heaven as the One Great Spirit. We bought an abandoned house for 20 bath($1.00) and set up shop. On a subsequent visit, we discovered that Ntxoov Xyooj had moved to the new village of Kik Noi set up by the Headman Paj Xab Yaj three kilometers from the New Friendship Highway being
built between Pisanuloke and Lomsak. In 1965, the Catechist Lee Teng come with his wife from Laos to join Father Harry in this new village. I took some boys to study in Vientiane, among them Lee Bee. In 1966, I myself went to Vientiane for some months to study the Hmong Language. We all settled in Kek Noi in 1966. Upon my return to Kek Noi it became clear that the house we had bought was to small to house, myself, the Catechist family, Clinic and Chapel. The people joined in helping to build a bamboo and thatch Church for the cost of 20 baht worth of nails. Bishop Duhart visited for the Blessing and First Church Feast, June 8, 1967.
The two years 1966-1968 were unexecelled, tramping the jungle, fiording the creeks, crossing the mountain tops, to visit the most distan villages, accompanying the men on hunting and fishing trips. The Hmong taught me how to survive in the forest. They showed me God in nature. But there was thunder in the distance, rumblings of unrest reverberating through the hills. Infiltrators from abroad joined insugents from within to foment dessent among the tribal people. many Hmong, uneducated, gullible, swallowed the party line, panicked and fled. Kek Noi became a ghost town. I stayed because the Reds said: "Father doesn't really love you. He is lying to you. He's American. He'll be the first to run when the Commies come." I was determined to keep my promise to them: "I will stay with you to the bitter end, I will be the last to leave."
And so it was. By mid-Deecember, 1968, there was nothing left to stay for. All had made their decision and split. Word reached us that Kek Noi was going to be caught in the cross-fire, the bridges burned by the Commies on one side, the Village attacked by the Thai Army on the other side. The Assistant Headman, Yaj Long, came in to inform us that the Hmong who had refuged to safety in Lomsak thought it was better for us to leave. He went back and arranged for trucks to come for us and our belongings. We called together the few people remaining in the Village and recommended that they join us. This was December 23. Within a few days, the Village was burned. The mountain war followed. In Lomsak we manged to rent housing for the refugees. We finally celebrated the aborted Christmas and new Years on January 6, 1969. in February, with the help of the Thai Public officials, we moved hundreds of refugees to the Church Land in Luey Province. Housing was built, pigs and chickens brought in, a School opened, and plans laid to establish a Hmong Model Village.
In November of 1969, the Will of God visited me again: "Your best move, Father, is..."I was appointed Superior of the Redemptorist Fathers in Bangkok, I did manage to visit the Hmong in Lomsak and Luey from Bangkok off and on during 1970 and 1971. Then, in 1972, Bishop Langer of the new Diocese of
Nakorn Sawan, appointed Father Jean Nottin, M.E.P. from Burma to take charge of the Hmong in Kek Noi...
Finally, in 1975, after my tour of duty in Bangkok, I was given permission to accept the invitation of Bishop La Coste of Chiang Mai to to to the North and inaugurate an Apostolate to the Hmong there, this with the fraternal embrace of my good friends in the Betharam Community. The boy Vaj Kuam whom I had sent to Vientiane to study to be a Catechist returned to join me. We first made a visit to all the Hmong Villages in the North with a view to settling in one of them. None seemed suitable, so we decided to rent a house in Chiang Mai for a time. This was providential as Laos fell to the Communists in June of 1975. Hordes of refugees poured across the border.
The German Bishops MISSIO organization helped us buy the house. We had a Center. Many of the refugees were Hmong, quite a number Catholic. We were able to answer their S.O.S. for help. Hmong stranded in town overnight were invited to lodge with us. Some students asked a place to stay.
The Hmong Center was born. We did re-visit many of the Villages we had surveyed earlier, but of necessity our main work for some years was Refugee Relief. For those of us living at the Center, we very early agreed on a schedule of the day and a curriculun of study. all has grown of the the past 25 years. We have 50 boys in training at the Center. Our Out Reach Program extends to 52 Villages in the mountains. Ten of our Catechists are stationed in strategic locations around the North. Formerly, we also cared for some villages of Karen, Lahu, Yao, Khamu and H'thin. These have now been turned over to others. From our Nerve Center for Evangelization and Development, we are there for those who wish to be Catholic. We are available for Social Services and Community Development.
In conclusion, I would like first to acknowledge the Greatness of God, and His Goodness to His Children. I thank God for His loving care of me over the years, and the Hmong People He called me to serve. I am overwhelmed by the working of God in my life: the call to be a Religious 50 years ago, a Priest for 45, a Missionary in Thailand for 43, His messenger to the Hmong for 36. I trust in God to persevere to the end.
I marvael at the working of God in the Hmong People, their response to God's call to Faith, their growth as a people, their long-suffering in adversity. I pray that God will keep His People firm in faith, knowing that God is with them always, in darkness and in light. They have witnessed in their hstory God's ability to bring good out of apparent evil, to bless our human efforts with heavenly fruit. Let us continue to wait patiently on the Lord. The Master will give a bountiful harvest in His own good time.
I would also like to thank all the good-hearted people who have helped me and the Hmong Center over the years. My confreres in the Redemtorist Congregation who have inspired me by their example and encouragement. The Bishops who have gone out ot their way to support the works I felt God had called me to do. The Priests and Religious comrades who have befriended me. Also, the many good lay friends who have supported us with their prayers and sacrifices, their generous contributions. It has been this support that has energized, up-lifted, and consoled us in our efforts to announce the Good News of Jesus, to assit needy children here at the Hmong Center and in other Schools, to challenge the Hmong through Social Services and Community Development Programs to lift themselves, to enter the mainstream of the Thai Society as rightful citizens, while preserving their ancestral language and customs.
I consider it a special blessing of the Good Lord on my life to have allowed me to come to know and love, to be known and loved by the gracious Hmong People. From the first, I was taken with their basic goodness, and the warm welcome they accorded this strange foreigner. I am in awe of the progress they have made these past 35 years.
I foresee even greater progress among them. I thank God for all the graduates of the Hmong Center, especially those who have remained on with me in the work of evangelization and development of their people, at no little sacrifice to themselves. To all of these, my heartfelt love, my high regard, and my deep gratitude.
I pray that all of us may walk together, awaiting the day promised by Jesus: "In my Father's Mansion there are many chambers. I go before you to prepare a place for you. Later, I will return to take you home with Me." (Jn.14, 1-3) In His Kingdom we shall rest in peace forever and ever.