Fr. Eugene Strain was a pioneer at St. Mary of the Hills, Holy Family Regional School

Fr. Eugene Strain, 92, founding pastor of St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Rochester Hills and former pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Rochester, passed away March 23. (Archdiocese of Detroit file photo)

ROCHESTER HILLS — A pioneering pastor, a staunch supporter of Catholic education and fearsome presence on the racquetball court, Fr. Eugene Strain was a man of many talents and even more blessings.

The founding pastor of St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Rochester Hills and driving force behind the creation of Holy Family Regional School in Rochester Hills, Fr. Strain is remembered by the community as the priest who made it all possible.

“I worked with him for a total of 40 years, and it was a great experience because he was such a great boss,” said Judith Kozlowski of the St. Mary of the Hills Parish staff. “My faith has deepened because of my association with him.”

Fr. Strain died March 23. He was 92.

Eugene Strain was born Feb. 24, 1927 in Detroit to Eugene and Veronica (O’Gorman) Strain. After being ordained by Detroit Cardinal Edward A. Mooney on June 6, 1953, Fr. Strain joined the Society of Priests of St. Sulpice, teaching for 18 years at seminaries in San Francisco, Louisville and Baltimore.

He returned to Detroit to be the associate pastor at St. Jude Parish in Detroit (1971-72), and St. Anslem Parish in Dearborn Heights (1972-74).

He later became pastor at St. Anslem in 1974 before moving to St. Andrew Parish in Rochester in 1978. Fr. Strain also served as administrator at St. Andrew for a few months in 2011. 

In 1989, he petitioned Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida to create St. Mary of the Hills Parish on John R in Rochester Hills, where he became the parish’s founding pastor until being granted senior status in 2004.

“It was very challenging to start a parish,” said Kozlowski, who was a secretary at St. Andrew with Fr. Strain before he asked her to come to St. Mary of the Hills. “He would give you a task, and then put you in touch with the right people to make it happen. He taught me a lot about trusting other people’s talent; we couldn’t have started a parish if it wasn’t for the volunteers, and Father knew how to tap the right people.”

Fr. Stanley Ulman, the current pastor of St. Mary of the Hills, first met Fr. Strain on the racquetball court at Sacred Heart Seminary in 1972, when their respective pastors would drag them along to play doubles.

“He was at St. Jude at the time, and I was at Holy Innocents in Roseville, and that was our first meeting. We were friends ever since,” Fr. Ulman said. “We traveled together, enjoyed going to the movies, music, plays, playing bridge together. He was an English teacher in seminary who loved Shakespeare, and I like English. He was wise and witty, not much of an athlete growing up, but he remained active in the gym until he was 92.”

Aside from establishing St. Mary of the Hills, Fr. Strain was instrumental in the creation of Holy Family Regional School, a cooperative between five parishes in the region, including St. Mary of the Hills and St. Andrew, to provide Catholic education in the Rochester area.

“He was a big supporter of Catholic education, both with the creation of the Holy Family campus near St. Mary of the Hills, but all of Catholic education,” Fr. Ulman said. “He was a big supporter of other schools in the archdiocese, especially Loyola High School in Detroit. He said if we’re going to have a school, we need to support the schools in Detroit. He was big in getting the parishes in the region to contribute to Holy Family; his legacy is in the young people he had an impact on.

Fr. Eugene Strain was pastor of St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Rochester Hills from 1989, when the parish was founded, until 2004. (Patricia Drury | Michigan Catholic file photo)

“He was all about supporting kids going to Catholic high schools and colleges, acknowledging their achievements in high school and college, whether it be in academics, service or sports,” Fr. Ulman continued.

In addition to his support for Catholic education, Fr. Strain was a master motivator, getting St. Mary of the Hills parishioners to form guilds centered around various interests and ministries the parish could offer.

“He loved people and was really good at bringing out their best talents,” Kozlowski said. “You could hardly say ‘no’ to Father. He was very persuasive in tapping into anybody who could help the parish. He was great at matching talents with what people could provide the parish. If it was marketing, he would make you use your marketing skills for the parish. If it was fellowship, you’d be on the fellowship committee. Everyone was involved.”

As his successor at St. Mary of the Hills — where Fr. Strain stayed around as “pastor emeritus,” helping out with weekend liturgies — Fr. Ulman said he learned a lot on how to be a pastor from Fr. Strain. 

“He taught me patience and how to rely on people, not shying away from asking for help,” Fr. Ulman said. “He created a lot of small groups, guilds and people who came together over issues on things, be it social, liturgical or whatever the community needed. He was a very generous person.”

Visitation for Fr. Strain will take place at St. Mary of the Hills, 2675 John R, Rochester Hills, from 1 to 8 p.m. on March 29, with a Scripture service beginning at 7 p.m.

Fr. Strain’s funeral will be at St. Mary of the Hills on March 30 at 11 a.m. He will be interred at Mount Avon Cemetery in Rochester on April 1 at 11 a.m.

Fr. Strain was predeceased by his parents and his brother, Robert Strain. He is survived by three nephews, John (Christina), Robert (Karen) and Richard (Jill) Strain; and one niece, Sharon (Dale) Burchfield.

Suggested memorial donations to St. Mary of the Hills and Holy Family Regional School.