A L K Switzer, March 4, 1964
Father Joseph-Marie Couture, s.j. The Final Part
Some Observations by Those Who Knew Him
It is an interesting side-light that one of the motives that attracted him to the Jesuit Order was that he loved company and felt that in an Order he would have more companionship than as a secular priest – and then he spent the greater part of his life in as lonely a situation as one could possibly imagine.
The local people who knew him well, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, French , Indian or English, without exception testify to the fine character of this man. He was patient, dedicated, loveable, and strong both physically and spiritually.
Father Rolland stated in a recent article that Father Couture loved God more than nationality. This is confirmed by all who knew him, that he didn’t debase the Church by using it as a vehicle for other ends than preaching of the Gospel. As Father Rolland said, to the English he was English, to the Ojibway he was an Ojibway, and to the French, French. When he was travelling or visiting with Indian families whose food dishes were different to those of the white man he insisted on eating whatever they had for themselves whether it was rabbit stew, bannock, boiled fish, dumplings and salt pork, beaver tail, moose nose – he wanted to be as they were.
He was fond of hunting and fishing, and particularly enjoyed an evening of good fellowship with his friends over a game of “500” with good natured conversation.
Although in Longlac he got many of his meals with the family of Nicol Finlayson and later that of Emil Finlayson, he himself was an excellent cook, and would entertain his friends periodically with a delicious bean feed made by bringing the presoaked beans to a boil for just a few minutes and then carefully placing the full pot with a tight cover in a well insulated box where the beans cooked slowly for 8 or 9 hours.
He was a good singer and made records of hymns, masses, etc. and distributed these to the Indians so they could be aided in their devotions during his absence.
On a hunting or fishing trip he was always one of the gang and could be counted on to do his full share of all the chores. Those who were privileged to accompany him on these trips eagerly looked forward to the occasion.
He regularly conducted prayers when out on such a trip but nevertheless was able to divorce teaching and devotion from pleasure so that neither suffered.
He had a happy manner with everyone, he didn’t order people to do things but would suggest. For instance if someone had borrowed a tool or bit of equipment without his knowledge, he would quietly say “I think there is something missing here, I wonder what could have happened to it?” and it would reappear.
He had a fine team of MacKenzie River Huskies, about 125 pounds each – of which he was very proud. Their names were: Prince (lead), Tiger, Higger and Wolf – wheel dog next to the toboggan.
Once Father Couture spoke to a Protestant parent in Longlac and said “ Are you aware that your children are sitting in on my catechism classes?” The parent said “ No, but if you can put up with them it is all right by me.”
His cabin was crudely constructed with one room – later a lean-to shed was added – and was cold and drafty. Mice were plentiful and Father Couture who kept a “22” rifle behind his chair just for this purpose would reach for it when he saw a mouse and shoot it. Once when he saw two eyes peering in a crack from the shed and heard a meowing, he reached for the rifle and fired, then went to see the results. He had shot a cat and behind it were two aluminium plates which were never quite the same thereafter.
The cabin was such that even when there was a good fire burning , if there was a wind blowing you had to stay down wind of the stove to remain comfortable. Frozen meat would remain frozen in the winter time if left next to the wall.
Here is a remark from one of his Indian parishioners. “Father Couture was one of the priests that worked and gave his whole heart and life for the Indians. He worked hard to teach them catechism, prayers and singing, both in Latin and in Indian.”
“He used to visit the Indians along the Railroad and in the trap-line camps, travelling on snow shoes, sleeping on the ground in the wigwams and often had not proper food to eat on these visits to the Indian camps.”
“Father Couture had made many open hearts to the Indians where-ever he had been. He is remembered by many Indians of the Norther Ontario and when news spread telling of his death in 1949, many Indians living both on the north shore of Lake Superior as well as the far northern part of Ontario, and at home here in Longlac, were all in tears.”
An English Protestant told me that at his funeral it was remarkable how Indians came from hundreds of miles away to pay their respects – a demonstration of the love which they felt for him and also of the effectiveness of the “Moccasin Telegraph” about which he loved to tell.
He was a great man and even as he sleeps here in this church, the example that he set of unselfish devotion to Christ and his fellow men can be an inspiration and guide to those who follow him.
“If we sit down at set of sun
And count the things that we have done,
And counting, find
One self-denying act, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard
One glance most kind,
That fell like sunshine where it went
Then we may count the day well spent.”
End of this series of Posts.