I’ll Fly Away

Mary Payne in the 50s or 60s standing by a red propeller plane

I’ll Fly Away

On November 14 one of our alumni, Mary Pyne, passed away in Saskatoon.  Mary graduated in 1950.  (She was Mary Clark and the school was the United Church Training School at the time.) She went on to a career as a deaconess and a “flying nurse.”

I think that many of our graduates from that generation (and from other generations) will resonate with the spirit of commitment described by Mary’s niece Lori in her eulogy.  (The memorial service was held at Grace-Westminster United in Saskatoon.)


My aunt Mary was a woman who had her head firmly in the clouds.

She was a dreamer, but she also had very practical medical skills. One day, I was about ten years old, and we were in a restaurant and I heard a loud crash. Before I could register what was going on, Mary had jumped up and begun to administer first aid to a man experiencing an epileptic seizure. She helped him into an ambulance and then we went back to calmly eating our lunch. It was so surreal I could have filed it away in my memory as a dream, but it actually happened more than once.

Mary in nurse's uniformBefore there was feminism, there was Mary. Mary showed my sister and I that a single woman could travel, go on adventures, learn different languages and explore artistic expression. When I tell my friends Mary was a flying nurse, they are puzzled. “What the heck is a flying nurse?” Mary was a nurse who flew her own plane to access remote northern communities. My aunt was a community nurse in the full sense of the word. She created community as she improved people’s access and use of healthcare, and I’m sure she helped save many lives.

My aunt Mary was a lefty. (And I don’t mean she was a south paw.) She was never shy about expressing her political beliefs. She was a natural born raging granny. Mary didn’t just talk politics. She lived her politics and put them into action. We need more lefties like her. Mary taught me the meaning of political integrity. Just two years ago she visited us in Vancouver where she was attending an Amnesty International conference. She was disappointed in the way the organization was going. “People don’t sit down and write the letters anymore,” she said. Mary wrote letters to political prisoners. Hundreds, maybe thousands of inmates have been offered real comfort by her words. And she was a good writer. She wrote lyrical poetry that was infused with her love of the prairie ecosystem.

Before liberation theology, there was Mary. Although the term grew out of work in Latin America in the 50’s and 60’s, the word wasn’t coined until the 1970’s, by which time Mary had already been practising it for nearly two decades. Mary was never seduced by passive spirituality. She turned words and prayers into action. Words like “self-care” never entered her vocabulary.

Mary practised self-sacrifice without really meaning to. She would put the needs of the oppressed above her own needs–not out of a martyr complex, but because she just genuinely loved to do her work. She came back from Africa with malaria which had lasting effects on her health. It was hard on our family, because we didn’t like to see her sacrifice her health and my mom has spent years of her life nursing the heroic nurse. I remember meeting Mary after she got off the plane from Nicaragua in the early 90’s. She was emaciated and shaking so much she could barely speak. She came back to Saskatoon to regenerate and then set off on her next adventure. Mary didn’t just sacrifice her own health, she gave away any extra money she had to her favourite charities. This was also done to the point where she literally didn’t have enough money to cover her own financial needs. She was the opposite of a compulsive gambler. She was a compulsive giver. She practised this kind of self-sacrifice and lived to be 90 years old.

My aunt fell is love at least once that we know of. She married Des Pyne and they had a sweet romance for a short time. Mary never lost her devotion to his daughters, the Pyne sisters. She held a special place in her heart for those women and their families.

Mary, my mother Joan, Florence and Muriel taught me the true meaning of sisterhood. Most of all, Mary loved her sisters. They all used to go on trips together wearing matching hats. They would call each other “the wyrd sisters” and hoot with laughter. The Clark sisters had a strong bond. They were very lucky to love one another so deeply. Mary was sweet and kind, but when she played Scrabble, she played to win, and she usually did. Mom might have beaten her once or twice.

My sister was one of the brave souls who dared to fly with Mary. As a pilot, her navigational skills were sometimes lacking and she had a knack for getting lost. She sometimes had to swoop down low to see the town’s name painted on an elevator. She had at least one unscheduled landing in a wheat field.

Before there was formal acceptance of gays and lesbians in the United Church, there was Mary. She told me that an elderly friend was complaining about homosexuality in the United Church. “If only she’d realize that the man she is so fond of that that drives her to church every week is gay,” Mary said, shaking her head.

We may have been her immediate family but Grace Westminster was certainly her extended family. No matter how much she travelled, she always returned to this lefty city and this lefty Church. It was her true home. I want to thank everyone here who supported my aunt and I want to offer my condolences to all of you, because I know that she will be missed by all of us and her friends across the globe, wherever they are.

John O’ Donahue said that our role for the dead and dying is to create a raft of words to send them on their journey. I searched for a more air-born metaphor for the occasion of Mary’s death and came up with a song. The day after she passed away, I spontaneously began singing the gospel hymn called “I’ll Fly Away”. Thanks for singing the song along with me at the service. Sing it often and think of Mary.

L. Weidenhammer,
Vancouver, British Columbia

Mary Payne in the 50s or 60s standing by a red propeller plane