In a bit of irony, Rev. Don Stein may have been writing his own eulogy for years.
A beloved pastor, ordained on his birthday 60 years ago, Father Don died on Feb. 22, 2021. He was 86. For years, it was Father Don’s practice at funeral masses to note the person’s date of birth and death.
“During those two dates there’s always dash,” said Father Don’s brother, Benny Stein. “And that dash is what the Lord will look at when that person reaches the gates of heaven. Don treated people in a special way, regardless of what you were, what you did, or what your reputation was.”
Friends and family say Father Don’s own ‘dash’ will be that he was a “people’s priest.” Throughout the time, Father Don was loved by his brother Benny, his sister Alice, nieces, nephews, friends, as well as brother-priests and religious sisters from around the world, and his flock in the Edmonton Archdiocese and in the Far North.
“Each person stood before him, unique, with a personal story, and he had deepest respect as he would listen and be present to each person,” said Sister Fay Trombley, who recruited Father Don to celebrate Holy Week for years in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.
“They weren’t just a ministry … They were a human story that was a person loved by the Lord and loved by him. He was the love of God. He wasn’t a rule book.”
“I think he took almost a selfish pleasure in the fact that he loved people,” added Stef Michniewski, Father Don’s close friend of more than 20 years. “He loved his friends. And he couldn’t get more out of his life than being with his friends and his people.”
Father Don’s life spans triumph and tragedy, from a tough childhood to becoming a pastor loved by so many that there was running joke that the old Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton would be needed for his funeral.
“He was special. He was a hell of a brother, I’ll tell you,” said Benny Stein, who named his second son Donald in honour of his younger brother. “He was terrific.”
Donald Stein was born on June 4, 1934, in the Calder neighbourhood of northwest Edmonton. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Stein’s father Ben was called overseas. His mother Marie-Anne was sick and couldn’t care for both boys.
Donald, along with orphans and kids from broken homes, was boarded at the former Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement Home in Edmonton. Benny said they practically raised Don.
Stein formed a deep love for religious sisters, particularly the Atonement Sisters, that lasted his lifetime. And Michniewski recalls he had the same affection for his brother-priests.
The Stein boys’ childhood was a struggle in the Depression in the 1930s, the loss of a sister in infancy due to the flu, the Second World War and then their father’s abandonment of the family. The boys were “very close”, Benny said, and helped their mother by selling magazines and fruit to U.S. servicemen.
“We did a lot to survive, and we made it. I’m very proud of that,” Benny said. But they had fun too. Benny recalls a fire that broke out on a Sunday afternoon in a hut nearby their home.
“Everybody in Calder blamed Benny. But you know what? It wasn’t Benny. It was Don. He had been smoking in this little hut. Well, that news got around!”
Their mother was a strong Catholic. Both boys were altar servers, including at weddings and funerals for which they were paid 25 cents. “That bought a lot of chocolate bars”. And even at 12-years-old, Don knew he wanted to a priest. Donald Stein was ordained on June 4, 1960, his 26th birthday, after study at St. Joseph’s Seminary.
Following his ordination, Father Don was assigned to both urban and rural parishes in the Archdiocese, including St. Francis Xavier Parish in Camrose, St. Patrick’s, Assumption, and St. Theresa’s in Edmonton, St. Anthony’s in Lloydminster, St. Clare Parish in Redwater and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park.
Father Don’s last parish was Sacred Heart in Red Deer, and he helped celebrate its 100th anniversary before he retired in 2008. If life is a play, retirement only meant a second act for Father Don. He travelled to Australia for mission work with the poor, and Sister Trombley recruited him to Tuktoyaktuk, the Arctic hamlet in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith which is twinned with Edmonton.
“It was a big deal,” Sister Trombley. “Don was so pastoral, laid back. He had no problems with unforeseen happenings. He could just go with the flow.”
As any pastor would, Stein met with the parish community after Mass. He traded stories of hunting and fishing with the adults, and listened to children telling their own stories, often sharing a traditional Inuvialuit meal of dried meat and muktuk – Beluga whale blubber – or caribou soup.
“You know, Father Don was a grandfather and he was a father. And the people just loved him,” Sister Trombley said. “He mixed and moved around with the people. He was fun loving.”
Father spent Holy Week there for seven years, and he was due to head there again in 2020 — but the COVID-19 outbreak postponed his plans to celebrate his 60th anniversary as a priest in the North.
He loved Notre Dame football and golf —although he and his friend Stef were not skilled at it — and he loved to celebrate and eat, so much so that over a couple of years he had planned the roast beef menu, the wine, the hall and the invitations to celebrate his 60th anniversary of priesthood down to the minutest detail.
“He was desperately looking forward to celebrating that with a big party, and of course, because of COVID, it didn’t happen,” Michniewski said.
In January, Father Don survived COVID-19 after quarantining for two weeks at the Villa Vianney, the residence for retired priests where he lived.
“That probably was a really difficult time for him and it’s because of his people personality,” Michniewski said. “He didn’t have anybody he could be with. And I could hear on the phone he was quite distraught, day after day, he was in that room on his own … and he was sick with COVID.”
Father Don was scheduled to move to a care home, but he never got there. In the last few weeks before his death, other health problems worsened so much so that he was taken to the Grey Nuns Hospital.
On Feb. 21, the day before his death, his friends in Tuktoyaktuk knew he was ailing at the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton. They decided to ask Michniewski to see if they could talk to Father Don.
Trombley said each of them had a good phone conversation with Father Don. And the group reminded Father Don of a favourite poem “Hang It On The Cross”, which was his 60th anniversary of priesthood prayer.
The poem call to hang our troubles, our a heavy heart, on the cross was appropriate at the time.
Afterwards, each of the friends in Tuktoyaktuk sang the blessing song. “He received that with such joy. And we sang it with great fervour, even raising our hands over the telephone as we’re talking to him.”
“We had truly, very precious moments with him,” Sister Trombley said.
Then they sang the Blessing Song to Michniewski, with a clear message. “They said, ‘Stef, make sure you tell him what he used to tell us when we were struggling: “Hang it on the cross.” Isn’t that beautiful?’”
Father Don had connections in Australia, the U.S., India, and around the world. And he quietly supported charities that he believed in. Benny said he didn’t realize how generous Father Don was in donations until the last three weeks of his life, when he through his papers and tax receipts.
“I said ‘Don, my God, how do you do it?’ He was just unbelievable.”
Michniewski has known him for more than 20 years ever since they met in Camrose when Michniewski was a religious education coordinator and Father Don, the pastor at St. Francis Xavier parish.
Father Don also had as mischievous side. In the last decade, friends and family were recruited to drive him on errands. Michniewski said it was never a single destination. It was often six or seven.
“We used to laugh about it because we knew we were tied up for most of the morning.”
Michniewski and Stein would often travel together. At a conference in Anaheim, Calif., a religious sister that Father Don knew asked him if he and Michniewski wanted to be in the welcoming procession with the cardinal. Michniewski thought it was a joke. He didn’t believe it until he saw Father Don on stage.
“Maybe people wouldn’t know he did a bit of liturgical dance for the cardinal in California!”
Throughout his life and ministry Father Don never lost his humour, even in his correspondence.
“Father Don had a couple of titles given to him during his service as a priest,” Benny Stein explained. “Father always liked to put after writing ‘Rev. Donald Stein’ the letters L.L.B.B.A. Everybody figured, ‘What the heck is that?’ The reason for that is Father liked to put ‘Looks Like a Bishop But Ain’t!’”