A L K Switzer, March 4, 1964
Father Joseph-Marie Couture, s.j. Part Four
Life as a Flying Priest
Each summer, Father Couture would travel again into the regions of Ogoki, Fort Hope, Lake Sainte-Joseph, etc. but in 1932 he found the going tougher; lack of money, abundance of mosquitoes, burning sun and a serious ache in one knee which hindered him when walking.
He discussed with the Department of Lands and Forests the possibility of using their planes on his trips but found they didn’t go in the direction required.
In 1932 he wrote to the General of the Jesuit Order to see if he might obtain a plane. He pointed out the hardships and the difficulties of trying to keep in touch with his widespread flock. He secured permission from his Provincial to obtain a plane providing that he didn’t build up any debts or count on help from the Order.
He went to Sault Ste. Marie and took flying lessons from the Department of Lands and Forests’ pilots. He was an apt pupil and learned quickly although at the time he was 47 years of age.
His health was excellent except for a little deafness in the left ear and a tendency to arthritis in his right knee.
George Phillips his instructor, suggested he buy a “Moth” plane – a stable machine and not costly – only $5000. To raise funds he wrote to friends, rapped on doors in towns and villages. By February 1933 he had raised $1500. Securing money in the depth of the depression was far from easy.
In 1933 he entered hospital at Cartierville for a successful operation on his right knee. In Montreal he met up with a fellow Jesuit, Father Tom Walsh, and they discussed the problem of money for a plane. Walsh suggested a visit to Noah Timmins, a generous mining magnate. At Timmins office they met Leo Timmins, son of the mining magnate and a former college mate of Walsh. Leo was limping. In the ensuing conversation it developed that Leo suffered from arthritis developed from a skiing injury. Father Couture told him of his successful operation by Doctor Samson and suggested he see the same doctor. Timmins had an operation and was cured. ( Three years later Timmins in gratitude gave Father Couture his third plane, a “Waco” which Timmins bought from Louis Bisson for $8,000).
Father Couture finally settled on the purchase of a second-hand “Gypsy Moth” bought from de Haviland in Toronto for $2200. The plane was piloted by Louis Bisson, a young aviator of much talent. He delivered it to the Sault for Father Couture. The plane had red wings with a large white cross painted on it and was aptly named the “Santa Maria”. Louis Bisson served Father Couture for four years 1933 -37 without pay as pilot par excellence, cook and altar boy. The Indians called him “Bemissewinini” – the man who flies- . in those days there was neither radar nor radio and gas supply was a tremendous problem. Bisson said in 1943 –“It is easier to cross the Atlantic today than it was some years ago to fly in the north country.”
In July 1933 they made a 4000 mile trip across the District of Patricia, starting off their journey by making two life-saving missions.
The “Gypsy Moth” was old and in poor shape. In the fall Father Couture acquired a second plane – a Bluebird, but it lacked sufficient power and a better plane was needed. Money to pay for those needs was always a problem.
Later that year, 1934, a small mine “Sainte Therese” started up south of Longlac. The promoters promised that if it was successful they would help the Indians. It could mean money to build a school, a convent, a home for the teaching sisters. The mine operated for tenor twelve years then closed down. Although all gold mining is a gamble and people who invest know that they stand to win or lose, Father Cadieux in his book suggests that it bothered Father Couture that his name was used to sell shares and possibly because of that some people who might not otherwise have done so, lost money.
Father Couture received his pilot’s license January 27, 1936 though he already had 300 hours and 50,000 miles to his credit as a co-pilot.
In the autumn of 1936 a plane dropped in to visit Father Couture, piloted by Father Paul Schulte, German priest who had founded an organization to furnish missionaries with modern means of travel. He promised Father Couture help, but the war intervened before anything could come of it.
In late 1936 Louis Bisson received a letter from high Church authorities inviting him to organize an aviation service for the Arctic Missions, which request he accepted. Father Couture was left alone to fly the rounds of his 36 missions. Later he was aided in his flying by Marcel (Buster) Caouette.
In 1940 Father Couture’s northern trips ended, for two years earlier, the Oblate Fathers took the far northern missions. The third and last plane the “Waco” was sold.