CREIGNISH: As a teenager, the younger version of Hugh MacDonald contemplated a career in the RCMP because, in his words, it would allow him to “get the pretty girls and wear the fancy uniform.”
Today, as he wraps up his 65th year in a Roman Catholic cleric’s collar, the affable priest known affectionately as “Father Hughie D” to thousands of people across the Strait area is enjoying the celebrations of his most recent milestone but also preparing to wrap up his active pastoral duties later this year.
“Every time I talked about retiring, everyone would just guffaw – it was a big joke for everybody,” Fr. MacDonald told The Reporter from his glebe house in Creignish, where he has overseen the operations of Stella Maris Parish for the past 19 years.
“But I’m going to retire this fall – I’ve finally convinced people I’m going to do that.”
Originally posted to St. Peter’s for a short stint following his ordination in mid-1952, Fr. MacDonald’s career as a parish priest subsequently took him to River Bourgeois, Isle Madame, Mabou and Sydney before landing in Creignish in 1998. He revisited his Isle Madame tenure with “a session down in West Arichat” to celebrate his 65th anniversary, in addition to a post-Mass party thrown by parishioners at the Creignish Recreation Centre on June 17.
“We were just going to keep it low-key, but a big turn-out came out anyway, so we all had a good time,” Fr. MacDonald said of the Creignish celebrations.
As he prepares to wind up his lengthy stretch of providing pastoral care to parishes throughout Cape Breton, Fr. MacDonald is still continuing his “Tim Horton’s Ministry,” which sees him providing counseling, prayer or just a friendly chat to pre-scheduled visitors or even those he encounters by chance at the popular coffee shops’ Port Hawkesbury franchises.
“I go up every evening, and I kind of sit in my car, and often someone will meet me there for a little help or counseling or whatever the case may be,” Fr. MacDonald explained.
“It’s become kind of a [scene where] I’m doing my thing, that sort of thing, and there might be a problem they might want to discuss, inside or outside.”
Asked for his thoughts on the state of the Roman Catholic Church and Christian worship in general, Fr. MacDonald seemed hesitant to suggest that a new wave of young priests will quickly replace him and others that are leaving active service.
However, he feels the Diocese of Antigonish has “turned the corner” from a series of events that discouraged many long-time parishioners, including sexual abuse issues involving diocesan priests and the child pornography convictions of former bishop Raymond Lahey.
“We’re still hurting, but we’ve come a long way,” Fr. MacDonald suggested.
“It was very, very difficult to be a priest here for a long time, with all the scandals we’ve had, including the [former] bishop himself. But we’re healing and moving forward, and things seem to be going pretty well. We’re trying to get back on track again, and I think we are.”