Alum and parish priest says Notre Dame Prep was both fun and profoundly influential in his journey to the priesthood.
Two-thousand-six Notre Dame Prep alum Fr. Dennis Strach, C.S.C., was ordained in 2016. His ordination completed a journey to the priesthood that included a bachelor's degree in music from Oakland University and an M.Div degree from the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he is the parochial vicar at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
And while Strach's journey to the Congregation of Holy Cross also included a profoundly influential four years at Notre Dame Prep, it actually began much earlier in his life.
"I first thought about becoming a priest when I was in grade school," said Strach. "I used to play Mass with Wonder Bread and Juicy Juice. I made my mom listen to my homilies and I gave 'communion' to our dog because none of my friends wanted to play Mass with me."
But Strach said the time he spent at Notre Dame Prep was, hands down, absolutely critical in laying the groundwork for his discernment and prayer — and for his eventual decision to become a priest.
Fr. Joe Hindelang, ND Prep's principal, recalls Strach as a talented and faithful young man.
"As a student Dennis was impressive," said Hindelang. "He was involved in a lot of things, well-rounded, compassionate and well-liked by peers and teachers. And despite the impersonations he did of many of us, he was talented and really funny. Without being showy about it, he seemed very much at ease putting his faith into action. And as a Holy Cross priest, Fr. Dennis is still that impressive, down-to-earth, service-oriented and funny guy. It was good to see him grow over the years on his journey to something that has made him so happy."
Check out what Fr. Dennis said recently about that journey and how Notre Dame Prep figured so prominently along the way.
Notre Dame: When and where were you ordained to the priesthood?
Fr. Dennis Strach: I was ordained a priest for the Congregation of Holy Cross on April 2, 2016, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, Ind.). The Congregation of Holy Cross is a religious order that was founded in France (like the Marists) by Bl. Basil Moreau. After coming to the United States, they founded a number of apostolates, including the University of Notre Dame. Holy Cross also boasts one saint from the order, St. (Brother) Andre Bessette. (Strach's homily from his Mass of Thanksgiving, which is his first Mass as presider is here. (beginning at about 3:22 in video): https://youtu.be/opLTJyvGuO0)
NDPMA: So what have you been up to since then?
DS: I was assigned to St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church (Austin, Texas) in 2015, so my parishioners have known me as seminarian Dennis, Deacon Dennis, and now Fr. Dennis! Our community is very active, with more than 3,500 parishioners, two to four Masses each day, and six Masses each weekend. All of our sacraments are celebrated in both English and Spanish (Thank you, Sra. Tessada!). We also have an elementary school (pre-k through eighth grade) with about 235 registered students.
I minister as the associate pastor of the parish, although I just finished a brief five-month run as administrator (essentially "temporary pastor") after our previous pastor, Fr. Bill Wack, C.S.C., was elected bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. I was asked to "hold down the fort" until our new pastor arrived. While challenging in many respects, this really gave me a sense of what it is like to be a full-time pastor, which is really an invaluable experience this early on in my priesthood.
In addition to my regular duties as a parish priest, I have been assigned by my religious superiors to assist with secretarial tasks and music/liturgy preparations for our annual Congregational leadership meetings in Rome, where I travel each November. I also serve on a committee that advises the Bishop of Austin on decisions related to the formation of permanent deacons for the diocese.
There is always so much to do and no day is ever the same. I love being a priest!
NDPMA: How has your time at Notre Dame Prep informed your choice to become a priest? Did you consider the priesthood back then?
DS: The time I spent at Notre Dame Prep was — hands down — critical in laying the groundwork for my discernment and prayer, and my eventual decision to become a priest. I first thought about becoming a priest when I was in grade school. I actually used to play Mass with Wonder Bread and Juicy Juice. I made my mom listen to my homilies and I gave "communion" to our dog because none of my friends wanted to play Mass with me, I guess. As a sophomore in high school, the desire to be a priest took root in a more profound way and I began to explore what the life of a priest actually looked like (What did priests do besides Mass anyway?). But I was like any other high schooler — I had a girlfriend and was involved in lots of after-school activities and clubs — but I was talking to different priests, reading books about prayer, and learning more about the Mass. Looking back, the most influential and directive part of my formation at NDP was the personal attention I received from the faculty, staff, and from the Marist community.
All of my teachers, even the administration, knew who I was (for mostly good reasons, I think), they knew my gifts and my shortcomings, and they pushed me to do my absolute best. To them, it wasn't just about my grades, it was about me becoming the person that God wanted me to be. While, I'll admit, I was not entirely responsive at the time, the goodness they saw in me and the ways they articulated their care for me was so profound. In the years that followed, it led me to delve more deeply into the question of how God was calling me to love. Fr. Joe Hindelang, s.m., and Fr. Jim Strasz, s.m., both took intentional time to teach me how to pray, how to discern God's will, and introduced me to the consecrated religious life. The influence of all of these teachers and mentors at NDP laid the groundwork for my decision to eventually pursue the vocation to the priesthood.
If anyone reading this ever considered (even briefly) a vocation to religious life or priesthood, I would recommend talking about it with someone you trust. It really helps to get your questions out on the table and get some advice from others who know you well.
DS: People don't know how to relate to priests; it's really amusing to me! I am a normal dude and yet when I tell people that I went to the movie theater or I watched a Notre Dame football game at a bar, they say, "Wow, they let you do that!?" I mean, yeah…who is "they??" I'm just a guy who wants to give my life for others as a witness to Christ's love. People want it to be way more complicated or interesting than it is. Any of my high school classmates would tell you that I have always loved bringing joy to people's lives, making people laugh, dumping myself into relationships and that I'm very driven and convicted by truth and beauty. In those respects, I am very much the same person I was back in 2006 when I graduated from Notre Dame Prep, those desires and joys are just more fully developed now.
In that sense, the biggest joys come by way of relationship. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. I love being a witness of encouragement and hope, and I typically do that in moments of great celebration (marriages, anniversaries, school and athletic functions) and moments of unimaginable tragedy (visits to the sick, visits to the emergency room or scenes of accidents, comforting families who have lost a loved ones). I enjoy being able to mentor students, especially having been mentored so well at NDP….and all of these things in a Catholic context. Above all, I enjoy celebrating the Eucharist and preaching because I love the challenge of translating the Gospel into an approachable, relational context that speaks good news and brings Jesus into the lives of everyday people.
In terms of challenges, the biggest difficulty for me (which isn't unique to being a priest) is a work/life balance. To be a spiritual father means to be constantly available and always "on," and yet, in some sense, that is simply unrealistic and unsustainable. Self-care is essential (prayer time, silence, time to hang out with friends, exercise) but ministry can tend to sort of run your life. So there is always a tension in finding a balance. Another challenge more unique to the priesthood would be going from one thing to another when the events are completely on opposite ends of the spectrum. For instance, it is really difficult when I have to go to the hospital to bless the body of someone who has just died and visit with their relatives, then turn around and do a wedding rehearsal. This goes back to what I was saying about being "on" all the time — people don't know what your entire day looks like, they just see you in front of them in the moment and expect an encounter with Christ. To be present to them and be a witness of joyful hope at all times is challenging.
NDPMA: Any specific memories, fun times, favorite classes, etc., at NDP?
DS: I just remember laughing a lot! I had fun in high school. My class was pretty close, and in the ways that we were dysfunctional, we made the best of it and had a good time. I know this is sort of supposed to be a "fun question" but I'm going to take it in a different direction because this is important to me….
There are definitely specific memories that stick in my mind as being pivotal in some ways (I already mentioned the influence of Fr. Joe and Fr. Jim). There were specific conversations throughout my time at NDP that I can replay in my mind with incredible detail — conversations with David Fazzini (choir), Ellen Tessada (Spanish), and John Smith (literature, but we were doing a lesson on public speaking at the time) — and, I'm probably painting a completely negative picture of myself here but, at various points during my academic career, each one of them absolutely kicked my butt! They kept me after class, sat me down and they said, "Dennis, you are so much better than the work you're turning out. You have the capacity to be a leader here and to knock this out of the park. Do it!" I was by no means a horrible student, so I don't know that I completely appreciated what they were saying at the time but — looking back — those conversations changed the trajectory of my academic career into college and grad school. They landed me on the dean's list in college, they prepped me for graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, and they became in my mind key moments that helped me to embrace the call to the priesthood — especially since my vocation hinges on public speaking, my command of the Spanish language, and music! I'm so grateful to these teachers for caring enough to pull me aside and steer me toward the realization of my full potential.
NOTE: Strach said that if anyone would like to contact him, his email is email@example.com. Also, the website for his parish is https://st-ignatius.org and for his religious order, it's https://www.holycrossusa.org.
Comments or questions? firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame's upper school enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.