Manitoba History: Father Svoboda’s Helicopter
by William Dexter Wade
Father George Maria Svoboda passed away peacefully on Sunday, 17 January 2010, at Taché Centre, St. Boniface, at the age of 96.
So began the lengthy obituary of a truly remarkable man. Father Svoboda was born in Prague, educated at its university, and later continued his study of philosophy and theology at the Lateran University and Athenaeum in Rome, where he was ordained. He served in a number of the parishes of the Archdiocese of Prague during and after the Second World War. After the war, he served in the Archdiocese of Munich before moving to Quebec where he served in several parishes before being transferred to the Archdiocese of St. Boniface in 1952. Father Svoboda was fluent in Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, German, French, and English, that I know of, and perhaps other languages as well.
I met Father Svoboda shortly after he became pastor of St. Hyacinthe Parish in what was then the tiny, largely Francophone, hamlet of La Salle in 1974. I lived with my family on the eleven-acre riverside remnant of a farm situated behind the church cemetery.
Father Svoboda, a tall, cadaverous man with the sallow complexion of one in poor health, came to my door one September afternoon on a quest to salvage my soul and, more importantly, the soul of my daughter Jennifer. I invited him in and offered him coffee, which he refused. This, as I was soon to learn, was not a rejection of my offer of hospitality, as I initially suspected. I correctly anticipated that Father Svoboda had come to confront the godless humanist who had insisted that his daughter be given alternative study during the hour of religious training included in the curriculum of La Salle’s three-room school. Father Svoboda did accept a glass of apple juice after obtaining my assurance that it was indeed pure apple juice containing no refined sugar.
He then set about my daughter’s salvation. He had inherited the responsibility for the religion class when he came to the parish in La Salle, and had conducted the class without complication until I enrolled Jennifer in grade one. Seated at my kitchen table, he began by expressing his shock and unhappiness at my refusal to allow my daughter to receive the blessing of God’s grace. I was struck by the passionate gestures he used to emphasize his softly spoken words. He had the long, graceful fingers of a concert pianist, which, as I eventually discovered, he was. An intelligent, perceptive man, Father Svoboda soon recognized my implacable nature in matters of strongly held principle, which some have called stubbornness. His unhappiness plainly etched on his face, he contemplated me in silence while he finished his apple juice. Then he abruptly asked if he could see my barn.
Thinking that he suspected me of using the barn to house icons of the Antichrist, if there ever were such things, I led him out to the barn, where he admired my quarter horses, rubbing their flanks, picking up and examining their bedding straw. He asked about my Barred Rocks, and seemed pleased to learn that they indeed ranged freely during the summer and were fed only grain and table scraps during the winter. I declined his offer to buy my eggs, assuring him that the hens produced more eggs than my family could eat and that, since I was probably feeding the dog and cats more eggs than was good for them, I would be happy to provide him with free eggs, perhaps hoping for a small measure of redemption in the eyes of the priest I was beginning to admire. He reciprocated by pointing out to me that horses were calmed by the presence of goats and that, since I didn’t appear to have any, he would be happy to lend me his, hastily adding that he would come to milk them himself. I eventually learned that Father Svoboda had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which he had successfully fended off with prayer and a self-prescribed diet of natural foods, including goat’s milk. His whole grain food he obtained from the newly established health food store owned by Joe Borowski, a former cabinet minister in the provincial government. Father Svoboda, in fact, needed a place to house his goats, but I’m sure he would not have asked without some basis of reciprocity. Thus began our continuing relationship. His goats and my horses blended harmoniously and Father Svoboda came and went between the rectory and my barn, sometimes stopping for a few minutes to chat. At these times, if Jennifer approached, he would raise his eyes inquisitorially to mine, receive my unspoken answer, and continue the conversation without a break. I eventually offered the compromise that, when Jennifer reached the age of sixteen, when I judged she would be old enough to make such decisions for herself, he could take up his indoctrination of her without my interference.
It was during one of our conversations that he mentioned his annoyance with the federal government for failing to grant him a pilot’s licence. Of course I responded to this seemingly innocent conversational gambit, little realizing that I was once again taking the bait. I was amazed to learn that this gaunt priest had built a helicopter, which he had stored in the machine shed of some other local sinner. Father Svoboda explained that his aircraft was really a gyrocopter that, when powered by a chainsaw engine, could be flown like a helicopter. This, however, required a pilot’s licence, which the government, in consideration of Father Svoboda’s age and health, adamantly, and perhaps wisely, chose not to provide. My commiseration was only a little disingenuous but the good priest hardly noticed as he went on to explain that the gyrocopter could be flown on a tow-line, which didn’t require any form of bureaucratic co-operation. The motive power could be provided by a ground vehicle, something like my truck, just for example. I recognized too late that I was doomed to abet this mad priest’s intent to subvert the government’s efforts to keep him safely on the ground.
Jennifer and her younger sister, Amanda, kept me company when we took the priest and his appalling aircraft to a long gravel road outside La Salle. We attached the tow-line to the truck while the priest settled himself at the controls of his gyrocopter, which was little more than a chair with a rudder and long, drooping rotor blades which had to be set in motion before the girls and I leapt into the truck and began to drive faster and faster until at last, the giant insect-like contraption rose out of the dust and began its horrifyingly rapid ascent. Amanda had her head out the window, looking straight up, and in her shrill voice informed me that “Daddy! Daddy! He’s flying!” which meant that he was now 100 feet in the air. This observation was supported by the evidence of a vertical length of vibrating rope in my mirror.
Certain now that I was doomed to become known to the local churchgoers as the godless egghead American professor who killed their priest, I saw myself in my imagination being driven out of La Salle by angry parishioners brandishing hay forks.
Mercifully, after our agreed-upon two-mile run, I slowed the truck and eased the lunatic priest back to the ground intact. I was doomed to repeat this performance on subsequent Saturdays with the growing certainty that this wily priest intended to reel in my soul as he had lured me into co-operating with his more mundane goals. That was not to be, however, as Father Svoboda left us in 1979 to take up duties elsewhere in Manitoba.
I missed Father Svoboda after he left La Salle, but was kept up to date on his activities by one of my University of Manitoba colleagues, Lorne Reznowski, who had been the last leader of Manitoba’s Social Credit Party and one of Father Svoboda’s faithful flock. After Father Svoboda left La Salle, he continued his ministry for many years, as an administrator in the Czech Parish of Our Lady of Fatima. He also conducted regular religious services, by radio, in Ukrainian, before his declining health forced his retirement to the Canadian Polish Manor.
Father Svoboda’s long and active life was sustained by goats’ milk, which it pleases me to believe I helped to provide, and his unshakable religious faith.
Like Father Svoboda, what had been the tiny community of La Salle is gone now, replaced by sprawling subdivisions, golf course, supermarket, and all the other accoutrements of a changing, growing, and somehow less innocent, world.
I try not to think of the La Salle that used to be, but when I think of Father Svoboda, I most often recall his beaming face in my rear view mirror in those moments before he “… slipped the surly bonds of Earth, And … with easy grace … and silent, lifting mind … touched the face of God” (High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922-1941).
Page revised: 4 November 2018