Mary Pyne, born in 1924, was a colourful, feisty and loving advocate for justice. She lived her theology in everything she did.
Mary, already a registered nurse, graduated from the United Church Training School in 1950. Her first appointment with the Woman’s Missionary Society was to their John Neil Hospital at Cold Lake, Alberta.
Cold Lake was a frontier town, and was in the midst of expansion in the 1950s. Mary reported to the WMS in 1953 that in one year over 100 babies had been born, 700 people had come to the hospital and 200 x-rays had been taken. As with all WMS personnel, Mary carried out church work in addition to that of nursing. Newcomers were arriving from all over the world and it gave Mary, “a thrill to meet these people, see their interest in our church and town, and the contribution they are making. In our mid-week groups, Explorers, C.G.I.T., Cubs and Scouts, I am the only “old” leader; the others are new and the leadership given is of a high quality. In the Sunday School Dr. Savage carries on as superintendent with most of the former staff of teachers and some new ones added — eight in all. Due to inadequate classroom space an extra class for teen-age boys is held at 10 a.m., with the regular Sunday School coming at 11 a.m. The congregations are larger, and on Thanksgiving the church was so crowded that we had to rush around and find extra chairs. The minister, Rev. Oliver Seward, comes from Bonnyville and is carrying on an immense task in both points as well as serving two other towns in between.”
Mary served at Cold Lake until 1956, when the WMS approved her for missionary work in Angola. This required a year of language training in Portugal followed by study in Umbundu, the local language. She returned to Canada for a year of study and earned a BSc in Nursing from the University of Saskatoon in 1962. Rising civil war in Angola made the work there difficult and the United Church was concerned about the safety of the personnel and instructed missionaries to leave. Mary left Angola in 1963, but she loved her work in Africa so she took training in French in Belgium and assumed an appointment with the church in Republic of Congo (now Zaire) the following year. But she was forced to return to Canada because of malaria she had contracted in 1970. After a year of recovery and mission deputation, the church would not reappoint her, citing concerns over her health. In a 2001 interview, Mary said that felt the real reason the church wouldn’t reappoint was her political advocacy in Africa.
One door closed, but Mary new there were others. With experience nursing in the north, and a vision that she could do community health work there, she learned to fly and became a fly-in nurse all across Canada’s north. Further work in nursing was in public and community health. She was always a good teacher, but at the age of 65 (1989) she earned recognition of those skills when she got her BEd. After “retirement” she spent 3 years in Nicaragua with CUSO. She could speak Spanish, French, Portuguese, Umbundu, was a gifted poet in English and played the alto sax. She had a short marriage to Des Pyne and was blessed with 3 step daughters and grandchildren.
The tributes to Mary at the time of her death (November 11, 2014) were heartfelt and consistently painted a portrait of a woman of strength, compassion and integrity. A sample of them can be found below.
Mary’s neice, Lori Weidenhammer, paid tribute to her aunt at the funeral with these powerful words.
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.
Before 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.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas in 2015, drawing on notes from a 2001 interview with Mary, her obituary, an Article by Helen Smith-McIntyre, editions of Missionaries Reporting (WMS) and the eulogy by Lori Weidenhammer, Vancouver, British Columbia. Thanks to Gwenna Moss for compiling the tributes.
Selected Contributions to the Funeral Guest Book
I had the pleasure and opportunity to come to know Mary under very special circumstances. We worked for two years together as CUSO cooperants in very rural Nicaragua from 1989-1991. We were here, in Nicaragua under a very incredible and difficult time. I am sad that I will miss her funeral, only because I am in fact in Nicaragua again, seeing changes that great spirits like hers helped to bring about in this country. I am so blessed to have known her. My respect for her tenacity, her spirit, and her quiet insistence only grew through the years. When we moved back to Saskatoon in the late 1990s I saw her once again in the circles of her political activity in Saskatoon and my respect for her only grew. It is sad that she is gone, but wonderful that she lived life with a great spirit of ‘entrega; and love. Mary “presente”.
Lori Hanson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
I will always remember Mary Pyne as a dedicated Christian who was always trying to help others and learn as much as she could about many world issues. She would constantly champion the needs of those people who need our help.
I also appreciated her contributions to class discussions when she chose to take my first year astronomy class as a senior student at the University of Saskatchewan.
Stan Shadick, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Mary shall be missed by those with whom she worked in Africa, which always remained close to her heart. She worked as a missionary nurse and nursing instructor in the 1960s and 1970s in Angola and Zaire where I knew her, and continued fund-raising for scholarships for Angolan students. A unique and amazing woman!
Dan Beveridge, Regina, Saskatchewan
Mary was a dedicated member of Amnesty International for many years and did so much to educate and animate others to support the AI cause…most particularly her work with young people…seem to recall that she was always available to speak with students in schools…she was someone who made a ‘difference’ for others who were in need of a kind word, moral support or simply needed a friend…she will be greatly missed by her friends, UCC faith communities around province and members of many groups/organizations in which she was active during her long and active life. Mary was truly ‘the fountain of age’… rest in peace, Mary!
Randy Fleming, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan