Take a Mormon aviation mechanic, shake him to his Catholic roots, call him to be a priest, keep him alive in storms when engines fail in small planes, and you’ve got a snapshot of what God has done for Father Scott Garrett, a bush pilot in Dillingham, Alaska.
Father Garrett arrived in Alaska as a mechanic with the Air Force in 1983 and noticed the disproportionate number of small planes in the air. One out of every 60 Alaskans own a plane, and it made sense for him to join the ranks.
“Everyone up here was flying, so I got my license in 1984,” he told the Catholic Anchor.
A year and 100 hours of flight time later, his stint in the Air Force had come to an end. He decided to redirect his life toward a different profession and committed to studying finances at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). At the same time Father Garrett was beginning to dig deeper into his spiritual life.
The separation of his parents during his childhood and other events contributed to his quest for spiritual meaning. Along the way he had explored nearly a dozen other religions. Little did he know that the seeds of his Catholic baptism were at work inside of him — and that the request of a college friend would throw a twist into his life.
“I wasn’t even Catholic,” Father Garrett recalled. “I was a Mormon at the time, and a friend from UAF invited me to Mass.”
Though he hadn’t discounted Catholicism outright, it hadn’t crossed his mind to revisit the faith of his infancy.
“I felt it,” he said of walking into Mass that day. “You know, it had to be the Holy Spirit. I had come home to my church and my baptism.”
Anchored in his newfound spiritual life, Father Garrett worked summers at Northern Air Cargo and Mark Air, while earning degrees in finance and business from UAF and the University of Oregon, respectively.
The Dominicans at the Newman Center on the University of Oregon campus planted the first seeds of his future calling.
“The priest asked me if I had ever considered being a priest,” Father Garrett recalled.
Working at Mark Air following his graduation, the idea of becoming a priest took hold.
“That’s where I got the calling,” Father Garrett explained.
In 1996, he entered Mount Angel Abby in Oregon and was ordained in 2003. He initially served at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River while attending summer sessions in Washington, D.C., at the Catholic University of America to study canon law.
While he was elated that his first assignment at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Dillingham would put him back at the controls as a pilot, Father Garrett worried that his hiatus from flying had left him a bit rusty.
“It was hard, as I had only 100 hours,” he said of taking over the four-seat Piper Cherokee Warrior, owned by the Anchorage Archdiocese. He had solicited the services of a flight instructor to ease back into flying, but he will never forget the first day he fired up the plane and flew it on his own.
“The first day out, it was snowing,” he said. “I must have waited on the ramp for an hour before I took off.”
Father Garrett said he spent a couple hours flying circles not far from the airport in Dillingham, but as he gained confidence he began branching out to mainstay parishes in Clark’s Point, Naknek and more than a dozen other villages around Bristol Bay to celebrate Mass in small churches or the homes of residents.
The weather in western Alaska poses challenges for flying. On one particular Sunday Father Garrett had embarked upon a trip to the tiny village of Levelok. Gusty winds and a gut feeling told him to stop short and land at the airport in King Salmon. He spent the night, winds diminished, and he decided to take off the next morning. Like many times before, he warmed up the engine, taxied out to the runway and throttled up to begin his takeoff. No sooner had he begun gaining altitude than the engine — his only engine — blew up.
“Luckily runway three-six is long,” he said of the remote airstrip. “I was able to bring it down and stop it before the end of the runway.”
Had the engine blown after taking off from the shorter airstrip in Levelok, Father Garrett might not have survived a crash into the spruce and tundra.
“I wouldn’t have made it out of Levelok,” he reflected, adding that the Holy Spirit intervened on that day too.
Father Garrett’s priestly assignments took him away from Holy Rosary in Dillingham to a post at Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla. Near the end of his five years there he took leave to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile journey stretching across Europe. Many have made the walk as part of spiritual discernment, and the trip was no different for Father Garrett.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he said. “The first three weeks I could hardly get out of my sleeping bag in the morning.”
Besides the rigors of hiking and camping, there was the uncertainty of the spiritual trail ahead.
“It was a wonderful spiritual journey for me,” he said. “I learned that I don’t trust as much as I should in God. I’m a structured person. I learned that I need to trust more in God.”
Father Garrett returned to Sacred Heart until last summer when he was re-assigned to Dillingham.
His return has been harmonious with his way of life.
“I really wanted to stay out here,” he says. “I’m a self-starter, so I stay busy working in the cemetery or plowing snow in winter.”
On days when he’s not celebrating Mass, providing the Eucharist for the homebound, visiting the sick or the elderly in the local hospital or in their homes, he enjoys subsistence activities and hiking out on the tundra. Other times he is in the air, praying, or waiting for where the Holy Spirit intends to pull him next.