Sister Bertrille was not the first flying nun, or, Let’s talk about Sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza – and about Sister Mary Aquinas too

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Sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in an AVIA / Lombardi FL.3 during their flight training, Turin, Italy. Anon., “Le ciel leur appartient.” Le Soleil / Perspectives, 20 February 1960, 12.

Good morning, my reading friend of the Milky Way. Yours truly dares to hope that the weather, outside, does not affect your little neurons too much. I would like to offer you this week a subject of a scale that could not be more reasonable, inspired by a very brief article found in the 20 February 1960 issue of the weekly magazine Perspectives inserted in the same day issue of the daily Le Soleil of Québec, Québec – and of La Tribune of Sherbrooke, Québec, my homecity, and…

You are quite right, my reading friend fascinated by space, the final frontier, Perspective, without an S, was indeed the name of the mission of the Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, carried out between December 2018 and June 2019 on board the International Space Station, a space habitat mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. This quite pleasant digression should not, however, make us lose sight of the primary objective of the present issue of that same blog / bulletin / thingee. Said objective concerned / concerns 2 members of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Catholic missionary congregation founded in 1775, in Pondicherry, a trading post of the Compagnie des Indes orientales et de la Chine, one of the mother houses of which was / is still at this location, in India.

In February 1960, sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza were in Torino, Italia – or Turin, Italy, if you prefer this translation. These Italian nuns, the very first to obtain a pilot’s license, were then completing their training before leaving on a mission. Sister Maria Cleofas was to go to Pakistan, while Sister Maria Innocenza was to go to India. Given the small number of aviation mechanics in these countries, the 2 nuns attended mechanic’s classes which should enable them to get by. By the way, the training of sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza also included classes in English, a language used by a great many people in both India and Pakistan. All in all, the training of these flying nuns lasted at least 4 months.

As you may imagine, I would be overwhelmed with joy and glee at the idea of ​​being able to pontificate for hours on these pilots. I unfortunately had to give that up. Indeed, yours truly did not find any additional information on the activities of sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza in mission land. I dare to hope that everything went well and that they were / are still with us in this year 2020.

This being said (typed), yours truly has found some information explaining how these 2 nuns became flying nuns. That story began in 1930, in Italy, with the birth of Paolo Gariglio. A wing nut from a young age, an affliction with which I am very familiar, this peasant’s son learned to fly in 1948. He was one of the first, if not the first person to do so in Turin after the Second World War.

To the surprise of his family and, it was / is said, of the priest of his parish, Gariglio decided to become a priest. Training for this purpose apparently lasting 5 to 7 years, he seemingly made this decision between 1949 and 1951. Be that as it may, Gariglio was ordained a priest in June 1956. Would you believe that he was often called the “Flying Shepherd?”

In July 1956, Gariglio celebrated one of his first masses for the family of a famous retired high-ranking member of the Aeronautica militare, the Italian air force, Frencesco Brach Papa. In the banquet following the celebration, a few guests and Gariglio talked about the missionaries who devoted themselves in remote regions of the globe. The latter had the idea of ​​giving wings to these people by providing them with aircraft and by building landing strips in said remote regions. Papa deemed the idea excellent and said he was ready to support it.

Gariglio mentioned his idea to his contacts in the aviation world. A group of pilots and instructors gathered around him to form an association whose objectives would be to give pilot training to missionaries and find a way to provide them with suitable aircraft. The diocese of Turin, the Aero Club d’Italia and Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino Società Anónima (FIAT), a firm mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2019, joined this great adventure quite quickly. Indeed, the Italian automotive giant funded the entire project. The Aero Club Torino, on the other hand, was happy to train the missionaries. An organisation was created in 1958 to oversee the project. This was the Centro Internazionale Aviazione e Motorizzazione Missionaria (CIAMM). Its offices were located in a former Turinese seminary.

A mass commemorated the start of classes, in March 1959. The first pupils were nuns and monks, including 2 sisters who were to go to Pakistan and / or India. Yours truly believes that these were / are the aforementioned sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza. As you can imagine, the CIAMM and its activities did not go unnoticed.

Once the classes were completed, a ceremony to hand over 21 pilot licenses was held in September 1960. The president of the Aero Club Torino and future (1966) president and chief executive officer of FIAT, a rich and elegant Italian famous among all, Giovanni “Gianni / Avvocato” Agnelli, organised everything. The local archbishop handed over the pilot licenses.

A powerful Vatican congregation responsible for, among other things, the dissemination of Catholicism in non-Catholic countries, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, regarded this project with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew its plans against the CIAMM. This was a done deal by 1962. The centre’s offices were then to be found in the Vatican. The training, on the other hand, took place at the Aeroclub Roma.

Deprived of the enthusiasm of Gariglio and other founding members and, dare we say so, mired in papal / Vatican bureaucracy, the CIAMM vanished in the heavens at an undetermined date. No one knew / knows what happened to the 5 light airplanes offered to the CIAMM by the United States Information Service, the United States Department of State’s overt propaganda tool. And yes, said airplanes may have been 4-seat Stinson Model 108 Voyagers light / private airplanes, a type mentioned in a December 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

This being said (typed?), missionary pilots trained in Turin and Rome flew in Africa, America, Asia and Oceania for many years.

You should be pleased to hear (read?) that the pioneers who were / are sisters Maria Cleofas and Maria Innocenza were among the women mentioned in a book, Pink Line: A Gallery of European Women Pilots (1984) / Pink Line: Aviatrici Europee (1990), published by a famous Italian aviatrix, Fiorenza De Bernardi. They were also among the women mentioned in a temporary (traveling?) exhibition, La donne che hanno fatto l’Italia (Women who made Italy), inaugurated in December 2011 as part of the celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, in 1861 and ... You are right again, my scholarly reading friend, said unification was ironically largely made on the back of the papacy which lost control of its lands in the Italian peninsula, with the exception of course of the micro state of the Vatican.

There would be a lot to say (type?) on this conflict between Italy and the Vatican, from the participation of Québec / French-Canadian volunteers in the defense of the papal states in 1861 to the agreements signed in February 1929 by the papacy and the unsavory government led by Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, a pompous brute and buffoonish dictator mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018. This being said (typed?), let’s not let see red and back to our story.

Ah, yes, I forgot, there is nothing more to add to this story, except that the aforementioned exhibition on women who made Italy seemed really worth viewing.

Not wanting to let you leave this haven of peace that is our blog / bulletin / thingee on such a depressing note, yours truly would like to let you know about another real flying nun, and…

No, not Sister Bertrille, a real flying nun, and ... Don’t tell me that this character doesn’t ring a bell. Sigh. The Flying Nun, a situation comedy broadcasted in English on television between September 1967 and April 1970? Still nothing? Sigh squared. What do people learn in school these days? There is no respect for the classics. To quote Marvin, the paranoid android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, magnificently played by Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman in the 2005 movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’m so depressed. And yes, my reading friend, the famous British Broadcasting Corporation radio comedy that inspired this feature film was mentioned in March and June 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Marvin, Rickman and the movie on the other hand, were so in the June 2019 issue of our, well, you know the rest.

Would you believe that Sally Margaret Field, the actress who played the aforementioned sister Bertrille, born Elsie Ethrington, judged the idea of ​​a nun capable of flying thanks to her heavily starched hat, or cornet, to be so ridiculous that she initially refused to take part in The Flying Nun? She only joined the project so as not to harm her career – a wise decision given the successes subsequently achieved by this multi-talented actress.

Initially very popular, The Flying Nun soon declined in the polls, and suffered the wrath of certain critics, which explained its disappearance after the broadcast of 82 episodes. Ironically, Field was visibly pregnant when filming episodes of the 1969-70 season.

If it is true that the use of a sometimes approximate English by a supposedly Puerto Rican nun was at the very least condescending, if not almost racist, the American (and Canadian / Québec?) Catholic hierarchy welcomed relatively well the flying young nun and her sometimes absurd projects. The series indeed presented the nuns of the Puerto Rican convent as women who ardently wished to help their fellow humans, but who also liked to share a laugh when the opportunity came along.

And yes, yours truly remembers having watched several episodes of La sœur volante, as was called the made in Québec French language dubbed version of the American series. Indeed, I am rather old.

And no, I did not know before writing this article that 4 issues of a comic book album entitled The Flying Nun were published in 1968. I was also unaware of the existence of a series of 5 novels derived from episodes of the television series, all published in 1968.

In a much more serious, if not tragic, register, let me note that The Flying Nun owed its origin to a novel, The Fifteenth Pelican, written by the Puerto Rican author Tere Rios, whose real name was Marie Teresa Ríos Versace, and published in 1965. She dedicated her novel to her son, Humbert Roque “The Rock” Versace, a captain in the United States Army captured in Vietnam in October 1963 and executed by his jailers in September 1965.

You may remember that the title of this article in our blog / bulletin / thingee dedicated to Italian flying nuns mentioned the name of Sister Mary Aquinas. Do you happen to have a few / several minutes to devote to this remarkable human being? Wonderful.

Sister Marie Aquinas. Anon., “–.” Le Nouvelliste, 11 September 1958, 1.

Sister Marie Aquinas. Anon., “–.” Le Nouvelliste, 11 September 1958, 1.

Mary Kinskey was born in May 1894. She entered the noviciate of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in 1911. She made her first vows in 1914 and her perpetual ones in 1923. Assigned to the role of teacher, Sister Mary Aquinas took classes at the Catholic Sisters College of the Catholic University of America. She obtained her baccalaureate (physics with minor in mathematics) in 1926 through a Summer School Program and began teaching in a secondary school.

The enthusiasm of many of her students for aviation eventually led Sister Mary Aquinas to take an interest in this subject. In the early 1940s, for example, Sister Mary Aquinas complemented the teaching she offered by adding aeronautical content. She talked about navigation in her geometry classes and meteorology in her physics classes. Indeed, Sister Mary Aquinas learned to fly in 1943, unless that was in 1938 or 1942 – an American, if not world first for a nun. And yes, journalists nicknamed her the “Flying Nun” from then on.

In 1942, a Michigan school inspector was so impressed with the quality of Sister Mary Aquinas’ classes that he believed she would be an asset to the American war effort. She was then asked to travel to Washington, District of Columbia, to provide pre-flight training to recruits from the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Aware of her lack of knowledge in radio communication, Sister Mary Aquinas took a course offered by the USAAF. She could then offer young recruits a quite detailed training in aerodynamics, maintenance, meteorology, navigation, physics and radio communication. Many of her hundreds of students soon nicknamed Sister Mary Aquinas “Spike / Sister Spike,” nicknames that very well reflected her inner strength, dynamism and take charge attitude.

Sister Mary Aquinas also visited many American states to promote her teaching methods. In the summer of 1943, she became an education advisor to the Civil Aeronautics Board, the ancestor of today’s Federal Aviation Administration, the organisation with the power to regulate all aspects of civil aviation in the United States which was mentioned in some issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2018, and taught at the Catholic University of America. Sister Mary Aquinas’ course was one of the first, if not the first of its kind offered in the United States as part of the teacher training offered in the summer months. Convinced of the importance of complementing theory with practice, she took her students, often / especially young nuns, to aircraft factories and airports. The presence of nuns in factories manufacturing war machines did not go unnoticed.

In 1943, a photographer captured Sister Mary Aquinas in action as part of a public relations campaign to highlight the contributions of various women to the American war effort.

Still in 1943, Sister Mary Aquinas obtained a master’s degree in science (physics with minor in mathematics) which had nothing to do with aviation at the University of Notre Dame, the very institution where John Smith, one of the 2 professional assassins of the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a 2005 action film, earned a bachelor’s degree in art history.

Between 1945 and 1950, the Commission on American Citizenship at the Catholic University of America called upon the expertise of Sister Mary Aquinas to write textbooks for students in American junior high schools. She also wrote textbooks for elementary school children in the diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she worked as a supervisor between 1948 and 1969.

Even before the end of the 1950s, Sister Mary Aquinas wrote a series of science textbooks, the Science with Health and Safety of the Christian Social Living Series for schoolchildren from grades 1 to 7 or 8.

Sister Mary Aquinas visited many American states to promote her teaching methods and said series of science textbooks. In October 1958, she was also in Montréal, Québec, to initiate to her teaching methods teachers at elementary schools (grades 1 to 7) in the English language section of the Commission des écoles catholiques de Montréal. This initiation was in fact the first Québec / Canadian use of the aforementioned series of science textbooks.

Approached by at least one journalist during her stay on Québec soil, Sister Mary Aquinas showed an openness tinged with conservatism in the teaching of science.

You can’t begin too young to study science. […] Science is nature and children should be brought to nature at an early age. In first grade, for example, children can study plant and animal life – how to look after their pets and care for flowers. The scientific vocabulary can come from their environments.

Speaking about her series of science textbooks,

The whole program spirals until the time they can trace air masses, have a working knowledge of wind currents and generally be aware of God’s wonders around them. […] We must prepare our children to live in a world we ourselves do not know.

When it came to science and women, Sister Mary Aquinas also showed an openness (“Women can learn science as well as men.”) tinged with conservatism:

The one gripe I have against our education system is that they have neglected the training of women for scientific work. […] Yet today’s woman lives in a world of science. Her kitchen gadgets are scientific in origin and operation. A knowledge of science will better equip her to make use of her husband’s money.

And long live patriarchy! Sorry.

Given the excitement surrounding the conquest, sorry, the exploration of space, Sister Mary Aquinas was asked if she would like to visit the Moon. “Come back first, brother, she said wryly, and then I’ll go. I notice that the men who work on rocket research aren’t overly eager to try out their own experiments.”

Acknowledging Sister Mary Aquinas’ exceptional contribution to the advancement of air power / airpower in the interests of American security and the maintenance of world peace, the Air Force Association gave her a special citation. Sister Mary Aquinas having made the request, the United States Air Force (USAF) as well as her order then allowed her to fly aboard a Lockheed T-33, a type of aircraft known in Canada as the Silver Star preserved in the divine / miraculous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. In fact, Sister Mary Aquinas piloted this jet trainer for much of the approximately 100-minute flight, becoming the first nun to fly a jet airplane.

Delighted with this experience, she obtained permission from her order to participate in other flights on other aircraft of the USAF and, possibly, the United States Navy. She seemed in fact to play the role of co-pilot on more than one occasion.

Sister Mary Aquinas’ fame reached such a level that Columbia Broadcasting System Company dedicated to her a biographical episode of the television series Westinghouse Studio One, entitled The Pilot, which aired in November 1956. Nancy Kelly, the actress who played Sister Marie Aquinas, won the Emmy Award for best actress given in 1957 by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Sister Mary Aquinas worked as a science education consultant for the aforementioned Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity between 1969 and 1971. She returned to teaching in 1971 and continued this vocation until 1977, when she retired for reasons of health.

Contrary to what many people believe, Sister Mary Aquinas had nothing to do with the flying nun of the aforementioned television series. This being said, the equally aforementioned Tere Rios worked on a biography of this remarkable human being that was never published.

Rios died in October 1999 while Sister Mary Aquinas died in October 1985. They were both aged 91.

Gariglio, on the other hand, took his retirement around 2005. This author and nonprofessional historian was still with us on this beginning of 2020.

The author of these lines wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier