Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 17, 2006
His spirit soars with his plane
Fr. Tom Rowland says God spoiled him with abundant and surprising blessings
- Photo by Patrick Stewart
Flying Fr. Tom Rowland skillfully piloted his planes and his priesthood with God as his navigator.
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
Lines soften in his 80-year-old face and Father Tom Rowland laughs as he says, "God spoils me."
That phrase becomes a common refrain as the priest at Edmonton's Marian Centre recounts the story of his peripatetic faith-filled life. Told with an accent leaning heavily on Texas twang, Rowland underlines the importance of his Catholic family roots for him in his discernment.
Given equal billing is God's intervention at critical moments of his life.
For example, consider how his parents met. His mother Maria emigrated from the Netherlands, settling in a Dutch settlement near Strathmore. But the family moved to Montana when they could not find a Dutch priest.
His father Chester was born a Bible-belt Baptist on a farm in Arkansas. World War One found the young sergeant stationed in Billings, Mont. Felled by the flu epidemic in 1918, he was cared for by a sweet-faced student nurse.
In the beginning
And that is how Maria met Chester.
Letters flew back and forth as Chester recovered and was stationed in North Carolina.
On graduation, Maria found work in Augusta, Ga.
Meanwhile, Chester was finding his own faith path when he went to Mass with a buddy and found out his roommate was Catholic as he finished his studies at Louisiana State University. The young man studied for his spirit too and became a Catholic.
Chester and Maria married and he began his engineering training program in Virginia. A son, Chester Jr., was born and a year later, Maria became pregnant again.
The medical staff told her she had a heart problem, and they would have to "take the baby."
"And Mother said 'Oh no you don't,'" says Rowland.
They compromised and Maria spent her pregnancy in a cardiac unit of a military hospital in Washington. "So I was born in Washington," says Rowland. "And I have a very strong opinion about abortion.
Six years later, Mary Catherine came along
"Dad and Mother were very fervent people," remembers Rowland. "We had prayers every night."
And each evening Maria would say to her Lord, "Choose as many of my children as you want."
They moved to Baton Rouge, La., when young Tom was eight. When Maria couldn't find her young son, she would just call the nearby airport and ask them to send him home.
"I just lived at this airport," says Rowland." I would drool at these airplanes. I knew deep down in my gut I was going to be a pilot. But I also assumed I was going to go to the seminary."
Transferred to the Philippines, Captain Rowland sent his children to a Christian Brothers school there. And the family would stretch its food budget to welcome Irish missionaries for rest and recreation every Friday night.
Says Father Rowland, "We (the children) were getting this constant reinforcement of what the Church was and the proper reverence for sacraments and priests. The devotion to priests was not only prayed, it was lived. If my Dad is not in heaven, there ain't nobody there."
Back in the U.S. by 1940, God's hand intervened again when a priest gave young Tom a book he still has, The Flying Priest over the Arctic.
"I devoured this book."
That life was exactly what the teenager wanted.
"But how was I going to be a pilot and a priest - in that order?
So he joined a missionary community - the Columban Fathers - when he finished high school. Rowland entered the seminary. "Seminary is seminary and Dad went and fought the Second World War."
Christmas ordination was approaching but China - the only country associated at that time with flying missionaries - closed its borders to missionaries that summer. So young Rowland knew he had to find something else. Applications went out.
A telegram finally came. "Happy to accept you for the Diocese of El Paso to be ordained with your class."
Still he could not help but pray, "Well Lord, you know I wanted to be a pilot and a priest and it does not look like the pilot part is going to work."
The angels listened
Again, there seemed to be heavenly intervention. When Rowland went to his first assignment in El Paso in June 1950, he discovered the Piper Airplane dealers were amongst the most active members in the parish.
"Talk about being spoiled," says Rowland. "So I got all my training and pilot's licence at no cost. It was a big diocese at that time and I did use my flying."
In 1956, his Dutch grandfather died and Rowland accompanied his parents to Europe. On the way back from Europe, the family stopped at Madonna House in Combermere, Ont.
"I had this crazy idea of parish teams - men, women and priests working together as a parish. And here it was."
He asked for permission to stay. He helped build the chapel and cabins at Cana colony. After 18 months, the first five priests of Madonna House - Rowland included - got their crosses May 3, 1958.
At the end of May, orders came to return to El Paso.
"Well Lord, I will be the best darned pastor you want me to be," vowed Rowland.
Rowland put into practice his concept of parish as community and priests and people working together.
He served in six parishes, one so poor another priest said it should be shut down. With Rowland and his parish concept, it flourished.
He did everything from fighting against segregation in the school and won that battle in one parish, to going to grad school to get an archeology degree to help in mission archeology digs.
Rowland nurtured his aviator's heart by building a 1939 stall proof, spin proof airplane that was years ahead of its time. "You get up early in the morning, pop the canopy wide open and fly into the dawn."
He also shared life with a miniature Schnauzer named Guffie for several years.
But when Rowland reached 60, he told his bishop the parish he was assigned to needed a younger man. And he retired.
So now what?
"I needed to talk to my best friend, my sister Mary Catherine, so I started out to see her in Washington."
God speaks - twice
And again God gave a nudge.
As he crossed Oklahoma, Rowland said, "'You know Holy Spirit, you really haven't shown me anything yet.' Halfway through the rosary decade, I heard this voice saying 'Why don't you go to Madonna House?'"
Checking in at night to say they are safe when they are travelling is a family tradition. So Rowland called Mary Catherine. The first thing she said when she got to the phone was "I got a message for you today (in prayer). You should go to Madonna House."
Yes, they received the same message at the same time.
"So the next morning I turned north and headed for Madonna House."
That was in 1986.
"I went to all the classes and was maintenance man at the farm. I had a ball." For 10 years he was guestmaster at the clergy guesthouse. "I could understand and sympathize with them."
He's also written a training manual on spirituality for applicants, served three years in Ghana and filled in when priests fell ill.
Rowland's been at the Marian Centre since last year and serves as chaplain to the people at the house.
The airplane is in a museum (he still has his licence), but a description of this priest's relationship with his Lord becomes clear when he tells of flying an electric plane visiting Jesuits gave to him.
He explains how each component is connected to the controller.
"And if everything is right, that airplane up there is doing exactly what you are telling it to do. And that is my morning prayer.
"Lord, I know today you are going to send me many signals. May I be as responsive to your signals as that airplane is doing."
He turns and grins.
"When I get to heaven, I want to float on an airplane - no pink cloud."