PORT HOOD: Even now, 60 years after his final Mass at St. Peter’s Parish in Port Hood, the name of Father Donald MacPherson is likely to elicit a story – maybe even a smile — from folks in the coastal community where he served as priest for 39 years.
Father MacPherson was known as a staunchly devout priest. He established the Knights of Columbus in Port Hood, and was in some ways a very inclusive priest, as he was fond of inviting a Salvation Army band to play at the entrance to St. Peter’s church. His time as a priest in Port Hood stretched from 1918 to 1957. He died two years after his retirement, but he remains near to the church that was at the centre of his life. He’s buried in the parish graveyard.
Father MacPherson is perhaps best remembered for his dislike of alcohol. Prohibition in Nova Scotia lasted from 1921-1930, and MacPherson worked tirelessly with law enforcement to make sure moonshine stills were found and destroyed.
MacPherson is also remembered for his service during the First World War.
On April 28, 1915, MacPherson enlisted and went overseas. With the assistance of the Chestico Museum in Port Hood, The Reporter learned that he was the first priest from the Antigonish Diocese in the Canadian Chaplain Service.
For three years, MacPherson served God and country.
“The Allies had their trenches in one area, and about 300 yards across from them would be the German lines,” said John Gillies, a board member of the Chestico Museum. Gillies, along with museum manager Joanne Watts, offered detained insight into Father MacPherson.
Gillies recounted a story he was told by another Port Hood soldier, Dan Lewis MacLellan, who saw Father MacPherson in action first-hand.
“There was active combat going on, and Dan Lewis was with his commander,” Gillies said. “They could see this man zig-zagging through no-man’s land, between the German lines and the Allied lines. The commander said, ‘who is that fool out there?’ He was zig-zagging and stopping to deal with people in shell holes.”
Once the man in the field drew closer, MacLellan realized it was Father MacPherson.
“The commander spoke to him in a stern manner, saying he shouldn’t be out there alone,” Gillies said. “Father MacPherson made eye-contact, and he said ‘I’m not alone. I have the Blessed Sacrament with me.’”
Part of MacPherson’s legacy relates to the way he pressed parishioners to stay away from alcohol and, in general, lead good lives – and he wasn’t always diplomatic about the way he offered his views. However, it should be noted that MacPherson was just as demanding of himself.
Being exposed to the sound of gunfire during his time in France, MacPherson suffered hearing damage and, after his service, he was given a pension. He felt that he didn’t deserve money for doing what he felt was his duty, even though that duty had cost him his hearing.
“He was getting a pension and, in his 80s, he sent his cheques back, but the Department of National Defense sent the cheques back to him,” Gillies said. “The told him the cheques were well-earned, deserved, and that they were his.”
Duty was important to MacPherson. That can be seen from the correspondence the priest sent home during the war. Indeed, in addition to his other responsibilities, MacPherson sent regular notes to the newspaper to inform locals of what was going on overseas.
Some of his letters were meant for a smaller audience, however. One such case came in October of 1918, when he sent a note from the frontlines to Mr. and Mrs. Roderick A. Gillis of South West Margaree. The note informed the Gillis family that their son, 21-year-old John A. Gillis, was killed in the Battle of Cambrai.
The letter was reprinted in Cape Bretoners in the First World War: In Their Own Words, by Ronald Caplan. In the note, the priest explained he heard from a soldier that one of the members of his battalion had fallen.
“He told me of the body of a Gillis boy he saw in a trench, who had belonged to the 85th Battalion,” MacPherson’s letter read. “Gillis and 85th Battalion was [sic] good enough for me, and I started off to hunt the body up. After some time I found the poor lad by the help of a Munroe of the same Battalion…
“I brought the body to an ambulance up in a blanket and the next day, Sunday afternoon, I buried the body at Sains les Marqions near Inchy. As a consequence I missed my unit for that night but caught up the next day and said Mass at nearly 12 noon.
“A few days later your son, John R., hunted me up, for he heard of his brother’s burial. I went with him to see his brother’s grave, where we knelt down and prayed for the lad’s soul. I took what badges were on the body when found and I enclosed them with a ring I took off his finger.”
Just after the war, MacPherson was named pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Port Hood. Once in Port Hood, MacPherson was 46 years-old and had a lot of life ahead of him. He lived to be 87.
In a history of the parish, St. Peter’s Church 1881-1981, MacPherson is described as an “example of faith and fear of the Lord… remembered well not only for the tower of his rages but yet also for the gentleness of his compassion and love.”
A number of MacPherson’s belongings can be seen on display at the Chestico Museum.