Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 15, 2004
MacDonnell continues to serve
At 79, outspoken priest still ministers to 5 parishes
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Gentle but resolute, this welcoming priest typifies what every Catholic wants in their spiritual shepherd. Patient. Present.
And for five Fort Saskatchewan parishes, 79-year-old Father Duncan MacDonnell serves their religious needs and still makes time to visit the sick and to play a game of golf.
What keeps him going is his love for his job. "I enjoy my work and as long as my health is good, I will continue to do it," he said in a recent interview at his office at Our Lady of Angels Church. "Four years ago I had triple (heart) bypass but I recovered well, thanks to God. I take care of my health."
Make no mistake. Behind this quiet demeanour is a man committed to the fight for justice. He opposed the war on Iraq, calls the U.S. an "evil empire," and has a distaste for big multinational companies, which he says put profits before people and the environment.
He also believes in liberation theology and in optional celibacy for priests, warning that unless the Church accepts married priests and women, the vocations shortage will never end.
The founder of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission, MacDonnell is a man of strong convictions who is not afraid to advance the social teaching of the Church.
Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, who has known MacDonnell and his family for about 60 years, describes MacDonnell as the epitome of a good priest. "He is totally committed to God. His life is defined by service," he said. "He has a heart like that of Jesus. In him, we see a reflection of Jesus Christ. He is a man of God and a man of the people. He is a man of prayer and a man of integrity."
In addition to summer golfing, MacDonnell keeps fit by walking for close to an hour three or four times a week and by getting enough rest. He takes regular winter breaks with other priests from his native Nova Scotia. In January he and three of his buddies spent two weeks on Vancouver Island. In the summer, he usually visits his remaining family in Nova Scotia.
MacDonnell will probably retire next year on the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. But that's not for sure. "I take a year at a time."
He has been serving Our Lady of the Angels since 1990, the year he celebrated his 65th birthday.
A few years ago, parishes in the Fort Saskatchewan area clustered together due to the lack of priests and MacDonnell inherited four more parishes and missions. The number of families in his charge increased from 1,000 to about 1,500. The number of schools, seniors' homes, hospitals and health centres also multiplied.
How does MacDonnell handle the extra workload? "I delegate a lot of the work," he said. "I have a good team." He and his associate pastor take turns to serve the five parishes. Business administrator Bill Potvin takes care of the finances and building repairs in the cluster and Fran Sheasgreen does pastoral care.
"Father MacDonnell is a wonderful person," said parish office administrator Deb Hume. "He is very deeply spiritual and caring and has a wonderful rapport with all the parishioners."
MacDonnell arrives at the office at 8:30 a.m. and is usually the last to leave, noted Hume. "He doesn't take his day off. It's usually Monday but he usually goes to visit parishioners in the hospital."
Tim Weller, chair of the parish pastoral council, said, "His big thing is he listens to the people. And he is always upbeat and happy."
MacNeil recalls he would send seminarians to work at Our Lady of the Angels so they could learn from MacDonnell. "Just observe what he does," the archbishop would counsel the seminarians.
The Second Vatican Council gave MacDonnell a renewed sense of the importance of the laity in the life of the Church, noted MacNeil. "The notion of collaboration made a big impression on him in his relationship with the people."
MacNeil said he never received complaints about MacDonnell and whenever he asked around people would say they loved him because he cared about them. "He is genuine, sincere, easy to approach - an ideal priest."
MacDonnell was born and raised on a dairy farm near New Glasgow, N.S. along with two brothers and three sisters.
Study and religion were encouraged in the MacDonnell family and both produced results: lawyers and judges and priests and religious and nurses proudly bore the MacDonnell name. One of MacDonnell's uncles, a priest, was a founder of the Antigonish Movement, a movement for economic and social justice that began during the 1920s. Now MacDonnell and two sisters, one a retired nun in Ottawa, are the only surviving members of his immediate family.
The call to the priesthood came during his early teens but, "it took a while for me to make up my mind."
Wanting to go to Europe to fight the Nazis, he tried to enroll in the Canadian Navy at age 16. The attempt failed when the Navy learned he was underage. Three years later he enrolled in the Armed Forces and fought in England, Holland and Belgium. The suffering he witnessed during the war changed him forever.
After the war he enrolled in university with the idea of becoming a social worker, all the while with the idea of the priesthood burning in his heart. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the U.S. and Catherine Doherty, the founder of Madonna House, were influential in his formation during his university years.
But MacDonnell wasn't happy at university and left after three years. He taught in a Catholic parochial school, a job that didn't fulfill him either. Finally Edmonton Archbishop Hugh MacDonald sent for him in 1949. The archbishop had learned through MacDonnell's uncle that he had been thinking of the priesthood and wanted him to give it a try.
"He told me to go and stay with the Franciscans," he recalled. "Go there for a few months and get your head together. It went wonderful. A priest there gave me good directions."
He entered St. Joseph Seminary in 1950 and was ordained in Antigonish in 1955.
MacDonnell's first assignment was as an assistant pastor at Sacred Heart in Edmonton's inner city. After five years, he became pastor of Sylvan Lake, Rocky Mountain House and Evergreen. Three years later, Archbishop Anthony Jordan send him to St. Louis University to complete his master's degree in social work. There he lived and worked in a black community and participated in the civil rights movement. Upon his return in 1965, he served as chaplain at the Bowden Institution for six months followed by another six months as pastor in Clandonald.
In 1966, MacDonnell was sent to Peru in charge of a missionary team. He spent six years in the barrios of Lima living and working among the poorest of the poor. "It was a wonderful experience, one of the greatest of my life," he recalled.
MacDonnell began to realize that the major need of underdeveloped countries is not development but liberation from oppression.
"I was a supporter of liberation theology and I still am," he says. "There is more poverty and injustice than ever before. The multinationals continue to rip the people off. It's a vicious circle. We are going backwards instead of forward."
"He is a priest with a strong social conscience," MacNeil said. "He made a preferential option for the poor and has lived accordingly."
Following the Peru assignment, MacDonnell served as pastor of Immaculate Heart for five years, St. Andrew's for seven years and Sacred Heart in Red Deer for six years. He came to Our Lady of the Angels in 1990.
In 1974, MacDonnell set up the Social Justice Commission at MacNeil's request.
MacDonnell said he has enjoyed every assignment in his long career. "I've being happy everywhere I've been," he said. "This is a very rewarding vocation." He gets satisfaction from simple things, like witnessing the generosity of people reaching out to others, caring for one another and sharing their gifts.
Asked to comment on the future of vocations, MacDonnell said he feels the priest shortage will last "until we get our heads out of the sand and start accepting married priests and women."
On the social justice front there is lot that remains to be done. "I don't think we are really challenging or critiquing the system," he said about the Social Justice Commission, which he founded and directed for two years. "We must challenge the status quo."
MacDonnell also called the war on Iraq a "great injustice" that was about power and oil. "The American Empire, that's the evil empire," he said. "Now they are involved in Haiti."
Letter to the Editor - 05/24/04