No sooner had St. Mary’s Catholic parishioners said goodbye to their priest, Fr. Frank Reitter, than they welcomed Fr. Mark Stronach, who came to assist the parish. Stronach is known as the parish administrator.
Although Stronach is uncertain as to how long he’ll be in Kodiak, he has a heartfelt dedication to the island.
Stronach, a Benedictine monk, also served St. Mary’s parish when Reitter took a trip to the Philippines several years ago.
“I had a wonderful experience the last time I was here,” Stronach said. Although he is glad to fill in the vacancy, he admits he’s hoping for a long assignment here.
Stronach has also served interim positions in other Alaska parishes. He has had five assignments in four locations , including Kodiak, Anchorage, Wasilla and Big Lake.
His first stint in Kodiak was a “great introduction,” he said.
One difference in the current and former assignments, said Stronach, is that, in the former, there was an expiration date. He said the need for interim priests is due to the shortage of priests in Alaska.
“The Diocese of Alaska doesn’t produce enough priests to run its ministry, so there’s a lot of religious order priests that are helping out,” he said. These include Jesuits, Dominicans and the order that Stronach belongs to.
Stronach said he would like to be in a more permanent pastoral position.
“I feel a need to have a flock. I love being a monk, but I also love being a priest,” he said. “I was born to be a priest. I love going to the hospital, I love saying Mass. I love hearing confessions. It’s not only ‘like’ but it’s ‘love.’”
Raised in a Protestant family, Stronach came into the Catholic faith in a roundabout way. He was born in Los Angeles, where his father studied to be a minister in the Four Square Pentecostal Church.
When Mark was 6 months old, the family moved to Pasco in eastern Washington. When Mark was 10, the family moved to Eugene, Oregon. He was there through his high school years.
Stronach said he “worked everything from security jobs to construction worker.” While serving in the Air Force, he was part of the security police.
Once Stronach completed his duties in the military, he concentrated on his journey to Catholicism. He was drawn to that faith through reading the Bible and theological books. (He calls himself a “voracious reader.”)
He saw the significance of the Eucharist (also known as Communion) in the New Testament, in which Christ is identified as the Bread of Life.
“I saw the real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist. “That clearly was the theology of the early Christians. When you’re raised Pentecostal, (the Eucharist) is seen merely as a symbolic action,” said Stronach. That Catholic understanding of the Eucharist “made me want to be a priest,” Stronach said.
He was a convert of the mind and the heart, he said.
Within six months of his conversion to Catholicism, Stronach contacted the Archdiocese of Portland about becoming a priest. He wanted to spread the faith. Stronach was besieged by what is known as “first fervor” He was told to wait.
In the meantime, he entered Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, a Benedictine community founded in 1882. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2012 at the monastery.
While Stronach was in the monastery, he served several parishes in the Oregon and Washington area, officiating Masses in English and Spanish. He also served as a chaplain in a retirement home.
“For nine months, I didn’t get a day off. I had a lot of ‘first fervor,’” Stronach said. “I’ve been doing something pastoral basically since I’ve been ordained.”
Besides tending to the needs of parishes, he’s worked in prison ministries and has held various chaplaincies. He led ecumenical Bible studies at a correctional facility near Anchorage.
In addition to his pastoral work, Stronach worked at the Catholic seminary in Silverton, Oregon, as a formation director. His job was to steer pastoral candidates to jobs consistent with their formation “morally and academically,” he said.
Stronach said he’s excited to be in Kodiak again.
“It’s a beautiful island. I love the spirit here. It’s a very supportive (community.) I don’t feel isolated, although the coronavirus has made it harder to get together,” he said.
In the meantime, St. Mary’s is taking precautions to address the virus problem by adhering to a mitigation plan that conforms to state guidelines. Pews have been pulled out, allowing for social distancing; the faithful wear masks; the church is sanitized periodically; and other mitigation procedures are followed. But Stronach continues to hold Masses in English and Spanish.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, “I know there are some inconveniences, but we’re open,” said Stronach. “We’re open for business.”