The recent passing of a long-serving, popular and dedicated parish priest usually arouses little attention, outside the communities in which they served.
In the case of Father Hugh Donald MacDonald, known by most as “Father Hughie D.,” the Strait area is in mourning over his passing, and is celebrating the great life of an inspiring man and priest.
Fr. MacDonald passed away at the Port Hawkesbury Nursing Home at the age of 95 on Dec. 31.
His passing evoked the spokesperson of the Antigonish Diocese to proclaim how “Fr. Hughie was well known and loved throughout our diocese.”
Born on a farm in Springfield, Antigonish County on Sunday, January 27, 1925, 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 assignments in Victoria County, which included traveling to local First Nations communities.
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, according to his obituary.
His subsequent ministries were as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Port Hawkesbury from 1966-1977.
Many in the town recall how Fr. MacDonald worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the disadvantaged and those struggling with addiction, while being continually in good cheer.
In 1981, 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.
It was on Isle Madame where Fr. MacDonald expressed a hope to eventually retire. The people of the island touched him so deeply, he requested a wake at the historic Arichat church upon his death.
Many on Isle Madame recall a jovial, energetic priest, who could seamlessly navigate local politics to get people on the same page working for a common cause.
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.
Those in the parish noted how giving Fr. MacDonald was, as well as his strong sense of humour.
A tireless volunteer, 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 Antigonish 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 98.XFM Radio in Antigonish, the board of governors of StFX University, the board of governors of St. Martha’s Regional 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 Sharing 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 his 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 was thrown a post-mass party by parishioners at the Creignish Recreation Centre on June 17, 2017.
In typically humble manner, he said, “we were just going to keep it low-key, but a big turn-out came out anyway, so we all had a good 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 drive from Creignish to Port Hawkesbury each night 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.”
Then in 2018 at the age of 93, Fr. MacDonald made the decision to retire, something no one would believe given his energetic nature. He then 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.”
Even in his final days, his friends said Fr. MacDonald’s faith and inner strength kept him positive.
Fr. MacDonald is survived by his nieces, Ann K. Amadon, four grandnephews and one grandniece, all of Thunder Bay, Ontario and Jean C. (Ralph) Paquette, one grandniece and one grandnephew of South Burlington, Vermont, as well as 11 great-grandnieces and nephews, all of whom he dearly loved. He was predeceased by his sister, Margaret and her husband, Stephen “Dan A.” MacDonald of Iona.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a private funeral mass was held on Jan. 7 at St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish with Antigonish Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick officiating.
The ceremony was recorded and is available for viewing on-line. Fr. Macdonald’s burial will be in the priest section of St. Ninian’s Parish Cemetery.
With wakes cancelled in Arichat and at the Dennis Haverstock Funeral Home in Port Hawkesbury, and with only 100 people allowed inside the church for the funeral, many people were disappointed they were unable to give him the send-off he deserved, or say their good-byes to a priest who meant so much to so many.
This frustration is yet another testament to Fr. MacDonald’s impact on the lives of so many people in this region.
A force of tangible positivity and endless energy, it felt good to be in his presence. Fr. MacDonald made people better, he improved the communities in which he served, he asked the faithful to live by the example of Christ, and most importantly, he lived by that example.
People like Fr. MacDonald rarely come along; few have his ceaseless faith and devotion to the church, his keen intellect and sharp wit, his good nature, his ability to converse with anyone, anytime, anywhere, and few possess his ability to unite people behind a common cause.
He will be missed, but anyone who came into contact with Fr. MacDonald should consider themselves fortunate to have had him in their lives at all.