Bush pilot priest: ‘At times it can be dangerous’

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The St. Paul Mission, based in Dillingham, is located in the Western part of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. It incorporates the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. With some 33,000 square miles, it is a little larger than South Carolina or Maine. We named it after Saint Paul because his writings challenge each one of us to take the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

For me, flying in severe weather, year-round, is the most challenging aspect of this mission. I fly the archdiocese’s Cherokee Warrior II to some 30 villages — often in extreme conditions such as gale force winds, snowstorms and icy weather. Between these villages there are no roads, telephone poles, houses or stores — only vast wilderness. There’s no McDonald’s out here, only mountains, rivers and lakes. I consider it a great honor to bring Christ to Catholics who are geographically isolated from the larger Catholic Church. These small Yupik communities desperately need help to build faith and family life.

At times it can be dangerous. The founder of St. Paul Mission, Father Kelly (God rest his soul), crashed and died on the way to a Palm Sunday Mass in Togiak in 2002. I have taken on the call to be the missionary pilot for these people.

Although most of these remote villages have fewer than 50 residents, as a priest, there is tremendous satisfaction in unifying people together, converting non-Catholics and administering the sacraments. While celebrating Mass in a home, cannery or community center, there are normally people of many religions on hand.

One of my most memorable moments came last when I was helping administer seven sacraments during one Mass at St. Peter the Fisherman in Clarks Point. The actual church building is basically falling apart so we had Mass in the local community center. During Mass, Sam Wassily, a native of Clarks Point, received first communion. Olivia Harvilla was baptized, received first communion and was confirmed. Crystal Harvilla was confirmed. Crystal and Shannon Harvilla con-validated their civil marriage. Then-Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne performed the sacraments. I think he was a bit surprised to offer so many different sacraments during one Mass and in such a remote location.

With no roads to connect the villages I fly our bush plane and serve the communities of King Salmon, Naknek and Clarks Point on a weekly basis. Additionally, I try to fly to the other communities at least once or twice during the year, unless there is a special request, like a funeral, confirmation or baptism.

Before taking off I check the weather, file a flight plan and do a preflight check on my plane. I also try to call ahead of time or text a resident in the village. That person then gathers other members of their community and lets them know when and where I will celebrate Mass. Since I like to walk, I normally trek from my plane to the village which can be some three miles. After Mass, and any training for confirmation or baptism, someone normally takes me back to my plane by four-wheeler.

As a priest pilot, I cherish the freedom to make my own schedule and the adventure and challenge of flying into these remote villages. There, people are thrilled to have a priest flying to see them and administer the sacraments.

When I first arrived at Holy Rosary in Dillingham, I flew the 12 miles over the Nushagak River to Clarks Point. Three people from the village of 35, showed up for Mass. We vowed that within a year we would “fill the place up.” God is good. By Easter the next year virtually the entire village attended Mass.

I normally try to fly at least three times a week. I take one day off for rest, one day for administrative and canon law work, and one day for maintenance and grounds keeping. I love working in the cemetery — changing out old crosses, leveling out sunken plots, and mowing the lawn.

A few years ago I was flying to a small village of about 50 people. But there was a 30-mph cross wind when I arrived and it was too strong to land. I had to overfly the runway. I waved down to George and his newly adopted son Tuwann, as they huddled together on a four-wheeler waiting at the snow-covered strip to pick me up.

I decided to fly on to King Salmon where the runway was long in and the wind was blowing right down the runway at about 35 knots. The next morning, I arose to fly back to Dillingham and as I was lifting off, my engine blew up. Since the runway was long I was able to stop before hitting the end of it. Had I landed in Levelock as planned on the shorter runway I would have certainly crashed into the trees on takeoff. God’s hand was working again.

Please pray for the St. Paul Mission.

'Bush pilot priest: ‘At times it can be dangerous’'
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