Stracke, Bernhard, Br. (1907-1992)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter
Birth / Death: 

born 22 November 1907, Niederschelderhütte (Tr.)

died 31 March 1992, Broome (age 84)

Worked at Tardun Farm (1934-1941) and Beagle Bay (1931-34, 1941-ca. 1946). Rescinded his profession to the Pallottines and married an Aboriginal woman to settle in Broome.


Bernhard Stracke was one of nine children, born in a 2,000-strong community named after an iron forge in the Westerwald region that was growing fast into a predominantly Protestant township.1 After finishing school in 1922 he took an apprenticeship as a ‘Schlosser’ (fitter and turner) and then entered the Pallottine Society in Limburg in 1923, at age 16, where he completed his apprenticeship in 1925. He made his first profession 1928 and his eternal vows in 1931, the year he was sent to Beagle Bay. 2


 Br Stracke and the Limburg Postulants in 1926

Br. Stracke in the Limburg class of 1926

Source: Liz Davie, Broome


He travelled together with Br. Müller (destined for Tardun) and Br. Nissl via Genoa, Suez, Singapore, and from there on the Centaur (headed for Fremantle) via Derby and Broome. None of them spoke English. The following excerpts are from an oral history interview in 1981.

 Br Stracke, Mueller and Nissl on boat to Australia Br Stracke, Mueller and Nissl on boat to Australia 

Brothers Müller, Stracke and Nissl on their voyage to Australia, 1931

Courtesy Liz Davie, Broome


Stracke remembered how when the Blue Funnel ship arrived from Singapore in Broome, many of the business people rushed on board to have drinks at the bar and meet ‘all the high society people’. Broome had up to 300 luggers, and the Asian crews were living on the foreshore by government regulation, not being allowed into town, ‘even Sun Pictures were on the high water mark’.


They spent six days in Broome before Bishop Raible accompanied him to Beagle Bay by motorcar, where he met Fr Benedikt Püsken and Fr Francis Hügel. He worked as a fitter and turner at Beagle Bay for two and a half years.


There were mostly Njul Njul people, but the government also sent a lot of part Aborigines to the mission, to get schooling. The government was a bit hard, they wanted them away from the Aborigines they thought they might be a bad influence on them, but it’s hard to say what the real reasons were.


The mission lugger Betty used to deliver cargo to Beagle Bay and Lombadina:


The luggers were built in Broome from local timber, they cut wood in Pender Bay, and Harry Hunter built his own in Bulgin Creek on King Sound. He didn’t want to live in Broome. Only the planks came from Perth.


Stracke recalled the activities on the mission:


At the mission the natives were taught carpentry, they built all the little colony houses, window frames and everything was made in the carpenter’s shop, the bricks were made there, the blacksmith’s shop, they put the rims on the wheels that were made in the carpenters shop, they made the billycans and sold them to stations in the Kimberley. They were made flat, 18 inches long and 6 inches wide, and others were nested into them to fit into pack saddles, mainly for drovers to have their tucker. The biggest one would hold a gallon and a half. Made from sheets of tin. The kerosene tins were much lighter, for this rough treatment they had to have heavier gauge tin.

The boys [raised at the mission] are all handy in carpentry, blacksmithing. In those days we were not naturalized, our qualifications were not recognized. These boys came out as handymen, but were not qualified. That’s the only thing I’m sorry about. We had carpenters, a baker, myself as a fitter and turner, but the government did not recognize our qualifications, so the boys had no apprenticeship. … I sat for my exams after I left the mission.

The girls learned ironing, cooking, washing, gardening, milking the goats and cows. The results of that education can still be seen in Broome and Derby. They can read and write, cook. I married a part-Aboriginal woman, she was the chief cook in the Broome hotel, the Conti. …


They had cabbage, eggfruit, pumpkins, watermelon, tomatoes, onions. … They ate the vegies because it was cooked for them in the stew, now they won’t eat vegies. If you let families cook for themselves they won’t buy vegies. … Some of them learned to drive motorcars.



Br Stracke and truckwith flat tyre

This is the mission car with which we drive. The white one is a secular priest from Sydney, the big city in Australia. We had a flat tyre but you can’t see much of it. You also can’t see much of the road. I took the photo with the delayed action release.

Courtesy Liz Davie, Broome



He spent two and half years at Beagle Bay as mechanic and truck driver, undertaking weekly trips to Broome for stores, a three-day trip.


The mission sold vegetables, they trucked it to Broome. We sold direct from the truck, me as driver and one off-sider from the mission, once a week. We had no freezers, only Coolgardie coolers.

It used to be 80 miles, now it’s further because they shifted the road inland. … The road was closer to the sea in cajuput or paper bark areas, just two ruts with heavy loose sand, almost bottomless, hopeless to dig and the truck was just 30 hundredweight, three forward gears and reverse. One of them was a Model T Ford. So we decided to shift the road further inland. So it was all on pindan soil then. Up to ten miles away from the present road. I spent about a fortnight in the bush on mules to see if could get red soil all the way. The road we made is where it is now, only now it’s graded. It’s red soil all the way. The mission maintained it, not the shire. We paid no rates, being a Catholic mission, we joined on the road from Broome to Barred Creek. Mackenzie and Hayes were at Barred Creek, so the shire maintained that road.

Very little finance was coming from the government. It was financed from the proceeds of the garden. And they sold a few cattle every year 90 or 100, that would pay off the old bills. That’s as close as they sailed to the wind. They never, even the missionaries had not much more than the Aborigines. There wasn’t even jam on the table every day, but you had the idea and you came out here to help the Aborigines so a bit of hardship was nothing. You took that in your stride.


Stracke ‘was too busy teaching them’ to learn ‘much about their myths and legends’ but felt that


The Catholic reasoning did actually appeal to them. Ceremonies and all that. They were there at midnight mass and they were singing away and it was something. One year at Corpus Christi they had candles in cut-off coloured bottles on all the battens of the old school at Beagle Bay.


In 1933 Br. Bernhard went to Tardun Farm for eight years. In October 1940 the German missionaries in the Kimberley were interned, and released some weeks later, and in late 1941 he was recalled to Beagle Bay. He was classified as an enemy alien and had to report to the police regularly but was allowed to continue working.


I was still in Tardun when the war started in 1939. We had to register and hand in our shotguns. They were short of a driver at Beagle Bay and the Bishop asked the military to allow for me to come back, so I flew back in 1941, and the war with Japan started in December that year. The Europeans were sent to Perth - Broome had no women at all except one matron at the hospital. The Japanese were all interned. Being enemy aliens we had to be very quiet, very careful in asking questions.

The Beagle Bay Brothers and Fathers were interned except those that were naturalized, before I came back to Beagle Bay. They spent a week in goal in Broome but they didn’t know what to do with them and let them go to Lombadina.


I was never interned. One week I made three trips from Beagle Bay to Broome and nobody said anything. I could drive to Balgo, through the Kimberleys, nobody ever said anything. The Balgo mission had to have tucker. We only did three trips a year and there were no roads. The last section of it you just followed the camel pad till you got there, that’s all.


Aboriginal people from Broome were evacuated to Beagle Bay and stretched the mission resources to their limits. Darwin came under its first aerial attack on 19 February 1942, and on 3 March 1942 Broome, which had been a staging post for the evacuation of about 8,000 civilians from the Dutch East Indies, was attacked, destroying all aircraft, ships and flying boats. Forty bodies of Dutch civilians were recovered from the wreckage. One Dutch DC3 crash-landed in Carnot Bay, carrying a cache of diamonds worth £500,000. Stracke participated in the search for the wreck but found no diamonds. According to Broome pearler H.V. Howe, acting as military secretary to the Minister for the Army, £20,000 were recovered but not returned to their owners. The finders had handed them over to the authorities without any process of counting or weighing, and several of them were charged with diamond stealing, but acquitted. They were then informed that they had rights to salvage, but by this time all diamonds had disappeared among the good citizens of Broome, according to Nailon.3


When child endowment became available in June 1942 the mission claimed this money for the children in the dormitories and


‘the Bishop ordered me to order extra fruit, tea and sugar and jams and things like that for the children. He said the money belongs to the children, not to us, Bishop Raible. So from then on things went a bit easier’.


During this time of upheavals he met up again with Monica Dolby who was born at Beagle Bay mission on 21 April 1919. Her parents had lived in the ‘colony’ of mud-brick single-roomed houses and she and her twelve siblings had grown up in the dormitories. She had worked as a domestic in Port Hedland, Perth, Derby and finally Broome, where she cooked in the Catholic Presbytery during the war. Like many other people in Broome, she recollects that the Japanese planes were flying so low over Broome that ‘she could see the face of the pilot in one aircraft’.4


In 1949 Br. Bernhard faced the spectre of repatriation to Germany:


Then some high provincial head or whatever [Provincial H. Schulte] came out from Germany and it was decided to get some of us back to Germany. And I thought why should I? So I got out of the mission and worked for my own living. I got a dispensation from my promises. I left the mission with practically nothing, touching forty.


Recollecting this period to his children later, he reckoned he was going to be sent home because he ‘didn’t pray enough’.5 In 1950, working at the Broome Freezing and Chilling Works, he wrote to Provincial Schulte requesting his trade certificates held on file in Limburg. He recollected that he would have liked to visit his relatives in Germany like the others who were sent back, but had preferred to be relieved from his vows. 6


At age 27 Monica received her exemption from the Protection Act in 1946 and Bernhard became naturalized in the same year. They married in February 1951 and had two children, Joseph and Elizabeth. During a cyclone in February 1957 Monica’s sister and mother died in their collapsing house, and Bernhard and Monica informally adopted the three surviving children, baby Stella, toddler Francis and Phillip.


Monica worked at the district hospital and later as cook at the Continental Hotel. Bernhard became maintenance engineer at the Broome Meatworks for five years and had to re-sit his exams to have his qualification as fitter and turner recognized. He acquired a Boiler’s Certificate in 1953 and the Engineer Driver’s Certificate in 1954, and became engineer in the powerhouse operated by Broome Shire Council. In 1960 they visited Bernhard’s brothers and sisters in Germany. 7


Bernhard retired from the Broome Shire Council in 1972 at age 65. He took on various offices, including Commissioner for Declarations and Port Conciliator and became a shire councillor for six years. It was a period of growth and new housing developments and he suggested naming one of the streets after Bishop Raible - this became ‘Raible Road’, a very small residential street in Broome. Another street became Stracke Cove. Monica also held a number of offices in the Aboriginal Consultative Committee, the Aboriginal Medical Service, Alcohol Rehabilitation Committee, the Women in Isolation group, and the National Aboriginal Conference. In 1977 she became the first Aboriginal female Justice of the Peace in Western Australia. Both were strongly involved in church affairs and the Labor party and were committed to Aboriginal advancement.


Aboriginal advancement was also the goal of Communist union organizer Don McLeod who organized a famous Aboriginal stockmen’s strike and walk-off in the Pilbara in 1946. McLeod was not a great friend of Christian missions but recruited a schoolteacher from Lombadina to set up a school for the ‘Strelley mob’.8


Don McLeod in my opinion has been extra good as far as Aborigines in Hedland are concerned. I take my hat off for Don McLeod. Some people say he got plenty out of it – not in my books. I can’t see what benefit he could have had, living as rough as he did. When he was put in goal once, the Aborigines walked en masse to the gaol to get him out. That speaks for itself. A lot of other people think because he wasn’t a religious man he couldn’t do anything. Religion doesn’t come into it, when you’re dealing with humans. He had different ideas from the missionaries naturally, but he fought for the Aborigines, mainly in mining rights. And he got results.

In 1992 Bernhard and Monica died within days of each other, both in the same hospital ward together in Broome, Monica on 28 March and he three days later.


The Stracke Family

The Stracke family at some time after Bernhard Stracke
received his habit in 1926

Courtesy Liz Davie, Broome



2 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:100.

3 Sr Brigida Nailon CSB Nothing is wasted in the household of God – Vincent Pallotti’s Vision in Australia 1901-2001, Richmond: Spectrum 2001:136.

4 Liz Davie ‘A Tribute to two marvellous parents’, in Helen Weller (ed) North of the 26th: a collection of writings, paintings, drawings and photographs from the Kimberley, Pilbara and Gascoyne regions Vol.2, Northbridge (WA) Access press 1994:41-44.

5 Liz Davie, pers. comm., November 2013.

6 Stracke in Broome to Provincial Schulte in Limburg, 27 April 1950, in Bernhard Stracke, Br. Ex. ZAPP.

7 Chris Jeffrey, ‘An Interview with Bernhard Stracke, (age 73), 6 August 1981, Battye Library Oral History Programme, transcript, WA State Library.

8 Sr Brigida Nailon CSB Nothing is wasted in the household of God – Vincent Pallotti’s Vision in Australia 1901-2001, Richmond: Spectrum 2001:111.