ANTIGONISH: It would be hard to find anyone in the Strait area who hasn’t heard of, or been in contact with, “Father Hughie D.”
Rev. Hugh Donald MacDonald passed away at the Port Hawkesbury Nursing Home at the age of 95.
“We hold in prayer Fr. Hugh D. MacDonald who died Friday, Dec. 31,” spokesperson for the Diocese of Antigonish, Jennifer Hatt said. “Fr. Hughie was well known and loved throughout our diocese.”
Born on a farm in Springfield, Antigonish County on Sunday, January 27, 1925, he was the son of Augustine (Gusty) and Catherine (Katie) MacDonald.
Fr. MacDonald attended a one-room school in Springfield then completed his high school education in Mabou. He graduated from StFX University in 1948. In the fall of that year, he entered Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax and was ordained as a Catholic priest by Bishop John R. MacDonald at St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish on June 7, 1952.
Fr. MacDonald began as a curate for two months at St. Peter’s Parish in St. Peter’s, which he likened to being “the water boy down there for the summer.” This was followed by an assignment as curate to Rev. Duncan Rankin at St. Columba Parish in Iona and the missions of Washabuck, MacKinnon’s Harbour, Baddeck and Nyanza, which included traveling to local First Nations communities.
Two years later, he became assistant to Monsignor Patrick Nicholson at St. Joseph’s Parish in Sydney.
From 1957-1966, he served as pastor at St. Peter’s Parish, Larry’s River with responsibility also for Charlos Cove. During that time, he renovated the church, built a new glebe house and undertook significant improvements in the parish.
His subsequent ministry was as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Port Hawkesbury from 1966-1977.
Business owner and church volunteer Hughie MacEachen said Fr. MacDonald “treated everyone the same.” He said Fr. MacDonald was very involved in helping the poor and disadvantaged in the parish.
“I knew him for years when I had the barber shop, he’d come in roughly once a month. He was always in good cheer,” MacEachen recalled. “He certainly helped a lot of people out. He did a lot of work behind the scenes that no one knew anything about.”
Fr. MacDonald became pastor at St. Stella Maris Parish in Pictou between 1977-1980, then took a sabbatical year of study at St. Paul University in Ottawa in 1980-81. He undertook French language study in St. Pierre and Miquelon in 1981.
That same year, he was appointed pastor of Notre Dame de l’Assomption Parish in Arichat from 1981 to 1989. He returned to the Isle Madame parish from 1991-1998.
Long-time church volunteer Andre Boudreau of Arichat accompanied Fr. MacDonald on his many trips to meetings.
“We had many laughs because he’d always deny that be belonged to a certain political party. We all knew which one it was. He was funny,” Boudreau recounted. “You couldn’t find a better person.”
Like others, Boudreau noted how Fr. MacDonald secretly gave so much to so many.
“He used to bring a lot of food to people,” he noted. “He lived the life that he had chosen in the manner that it should have been led. He was a priest doing what Jesus required of him to do. I saw so many examples of it.”
While being a great priest and person, Boudreau said Fr. MacDonald was also very much a diplomat who could easily navigate parish and community politics to get the community to work together and move forward.
Fr. MacDonald became pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in River Bourgeois from 1989-1991.
His last assignment was as pastor of Stella Maris Parish in Creignish in 1998 where he remained until his retirement in 2018.
M.A. MacPherson said he’s known Fr. MacDonald since 1969 when he started working in Port Hawkesbury.
“I got to know Fr. Hughie within two weeks of arriving and we stayed in touch over the years,” he said. “He was a very generous, giving man his whole life and I think anyone who’s had anything to do with him wouldn’t say anything different. He had a great sense of humour.”
MacPherson last saw Fr. MacDonald two days before Christmas, and said his strong faith provided strength in his final days.
“He was in good cheer, we had a few laughs. He died quite peacefully,” he recalled. “He laughed every day, heartily, and I think that was part of what kept him so strong. Life was enjoyable.”
Fr. MacDonald was a founding member of the Cape Breton Addiction Centre in Sydney and continued to serve on its board for many years. He was a board member of Recovery House (Addiction Centre) in Antagonism and a member of the Nova Scotia Drug Dependency Board.
He served on the personnel board of the Diocese of Antigonish, the Fisheries Appeal Board of the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the board of governors of CJFX Radio in Antigonish, the board of governors of StFX University, the board of governors of St. Martha’s Hospital, the board of governors of the Strait Richmond Hospital, and as Dean of Priests in the Richmond Deanery.
In 1996, Fr. MacDonald was honored with the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award that recognizes volunteers who demonstrate compassion and charitableness that are part of the Canadian character. He was acknowledged for his work helping people with substance abuse problems, his role in the establishment of a local hospital detoxification unit and bringing people in need to the unit, day or night, as well as raising funds for local halfway houses, holding weekend retreats, and offering counsel to those in need.
In 2012 he was recognized as a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an award that honoured “significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.”
When Fr. MacDonald was wrapping up his 65th year, he told The Reporter that as a teenager, he contemplated a career in the RCMP because, it would allow him to “get the pretty girls and wear the fancy uniform.”
“Being a celibate priest, going into the seminary was a challenge for me, I didn’t know if I was going to stay or not,” Fr. MacDonald recalled in 2017. “As I mentioned to another reporter, I liked girls. But, then I stayed and I’ve been going on all these years. I’d do the same thing over again.”
After a post-mass party thrown by parishioners at the Creignish Recreation Centre on June 17, 2017, Fr. MacDonald was given a similar reception on Isle Madame.
“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 at the time.
But even as he prepared to wind up his lengthy stretch of pastoral care, Fr. MacDonald continued his “Tim Horton’s Ministry,” which saw him providing counseling, prayer or just a friendly chat.
“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 three years ago. “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.”
MacEachen recalled how Fr. MacDonald regularly drove from Creignish.
“He did a lot of counselling at Tim Hortons,” MacEachen noted. “Every day he’d take a drive out from Creignish. He’d talk to people there and he would counsel people even in there.”
Then in 2018 at the age of 93, Fr. MacDonald made the decision to retire.
“Every time I talked about retiring, everyone would just guffaw – it was a big joke for everybody,” Fr. MacDonald told The Reporter from the glebe house in Creignish.
Fr. MacDonald went to live in Bethany House in Antigonish which brought him back to his home county, but he said Cape Breton held a special place in his heart.
“I’m going to miss the people,” said Fr. MacDonald in 2018. “I enjoy my relationships with people, very much so. I think I might call myself a people person because I love the people. I always reached out when I could. I didn’t accomplish very much but I had a great ear. I listen to people so that was one thing I did but otherwise, I’m pretty ordinary.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, wakes were cancelled, and instead a funeral mass will be held on Thursday (Jan. 7) at St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish with Antigonish Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick officiating.
MacPherson said in the absence of the wakes, and with only 100 people allowed inside the church for the funeral, many people will be disappointed.
“It’s just unfortunate that we weren’t able to give him the kind of goodbye that people wanted,” MacPherson said. “He had so many friends, this is why it’s so disappointing that there’s no wake.
“People are not going to be able to do their last farewell, and there’s so many that wanted to just do a farewell for him. He had planned it himself, everything was very well organized. He had planned it for a day’s wake at the church in Arichat and a day’s wake at Haverstocks in Port Hawkesbury, then the burial in Antigonish. Those two events in Port Hawkesbury and Arichat would have probably attracted thousands.”
The mass will be private, by invitation only, and all attendees will be asked to provide their names and telephone numbers upon arrival. Also social distancing protocols are to be followed and masks are mandatory.
The ceremony will be video recorded and will be available for viewing on-line following the church service. Burial will be in the priest section of St. Ninian’s Parish Cemetery.
“It can’t be livestreamed because there’s no WiFi available there,” MacPherson said. “We will have some sort of video following the service. We’re just trying to make sure we get it the highest quality possible.”