A.L. K. Switzer, March 4, 1964
Father Joseph-Marie Couture, s.j. Part Three
Life as a Paddling Priest
Father Couture’s apostolate for purposes of description may be conveniently divided into three main stages, viz:
His trips by canoe – 1920- 1933
His trips by plane – 1933 – 1940
His subsequent ministry from 1940 until his death (March 4, 1949)
He secured his baptism as a travelling missionary of the North in the summer of 1920 when he visited the Albany with Father Desautels.
On January 25, 1922, at the age of 36 he was ordained a priest. Sept. 8, 1922, Father Couture with eight others left for Florennes, Belgium for his Troisieme An ou ecole du Coeur – a year of post-graduate studies required for a Jesuit. He returned to Quebec, May 24, 1923.
At this point his biographer states “he will work all his life near the poor Ojibway of Northern Ontario, having no other desire than to help them spiritually and materially.”
In the first thirteen years of his life as a missionary he travelled each summer about 2000 miles by canoe and in the winter about 1500 miles on snowshoes and by dog team. The hardships he endured on these trips can only be appreciated by those who have spent months at a time paddling through the North, living out of a packsack, or in the winter have driven a dog team pulling a heavily laden toboggan through difficult country. And driving a dog team is a misnomer, for usually the teamster must go first to the heavy work of breaking trail and encourage his dogs to follow.
Listen to Father Cadieux’s description (taken from Father Couture’s diary) of a portion of his first summer with Father Desautels. This was about May 20, 1920, when snow may be expected and often ice is still in the Northern lakes.
“At sunset, Father Desautels sticks into the ground a slender stick at the top of which burns a candle held by a bit of birch bark; by its feeble flickering light he reads his breviary. Father Couture ends his reading, then rolled in his blanket, he goes to sleep. Not for long. A chilling wolf howl wakes him in the middle of the night. His woollen blanket can’t cover at the same time both his shoulders and his feet. He shivers the remainder of the night and it will be the same quite often throughout this trip.”
“At daybreak the two travellers launch their light canoe on the waters of Lake Harris; at the far end is a portage which leads to Lake Cache. Ah! That portage, where is it? They search for two hours among a string of islands large and small; they are mistaken twice in the direction, and at last, towards evening they find the proper trail. Too tired to portage, they pull into an island to camp. They pitch their tent on a rocky place to be dry. Bad weather threatens. Suddenly the storm breaks. Beaten by rain, hail and snow, they remain there several days, shivering. To complete their misery, Father Desautels catches cold, one side of his face is swollen, one eye is almost closed. His stiffened jaw hinders him from eating. It is a swelling broken open in five different places. I hope that the illness will not prove mortal thinks Father Couture! Whilst he builds a big fire before the tent he cautions his superior to be careful. And then as the storm diminishes in intensity, Father Desautels ‘ good health returns.”
The second summer he returned North with Father Belanger. He was learning the Ojibway tongue and how to travel in the North.
The third summer he was at Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island learning the beautiful but difficult Ojibway language.
In 1924 he had mastered the Ojibway speech well enough to conduct his missions in that tongue. That summer he made a trip with Father Vincent Beaulieu of the College du Sacre-Coeur at Sudbury – from Bucke (Savant Lake) on the north line to Lac Saint-Joseph then back to Hearst and from Pagwa to Ogoki and return. On this trip as on all others the work and the hardships and the lost time are incidental to the object of the trip viz preaching, teaching catechism, blessing marriages, visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved and settling differences.
In February, 1925 he was attacked by arthritis, a malady that would continue to bother him periodically until his death.
In 1927 he used an outboard motor on his canoe and one present resident says that when he returned after a summer on one of these odysseys in the North that the motor would be battered and worn out.
In 1931 he was accompanied on his trip by the Reverend Father William Hingston, Provincial of the Jesuits of Upper Canada, and by a seminarian, Father Alexandre Rolland, who was ordained in 1934.
From time to time he called in the Indians for a few days of study. These study periods would last three days with questions, answers, songs, prayers, etc.