For some people, he is a beloved teacher and for others, a respected spiritual guide. For those who know him well, he is a delightful friend.
More than 100 people celebrated the 50th anniversary of Franciscan Father Donald MacDonald’s priestly ordination. Friends and family, as well as past and present associates and students from Newman Theological College, attended an open house at St. Faith’s Anglican Church on Oct. 31.
Ever true to his dedication to the college, MacDonald used the occasion to make a pitch for the institution.
“You could give me no greater gift on the occasion of my 50 years as a priest than to support the college and seminary as much as you can,” he said.
“I’m not only talking about money. Encourage people to take classes and spread the news that the need for solid formation in the faith has never been greater.”
It was fitting that the celebration of MacDonald’s anniversary took place at an Anglican church.
He has a close connection with the Anglican Church, having taught courses to many Anglican ministers during his 40-plus years of teaching at Newman.
“I pray that the day will come soon when the presence of so many Anglican students at Newman Theological College will once again be a reality. At one time we had 18 full-time Anglican students studying at Newman,” said MacDonald.
Among the Anglicans who studied under MacDonald at Newman was the Rev. Elizabeth Metcalfe, a minister at St. Mary’s Anglican.
Under MacDonald’s guidance for over three years, she described him as challenging, intimidating at times, but above all else, incredibly kind.
“You could ask him anything, and he was so thoughtful. I remember you could ask a question and there was always a pause. He would think about your question, and you could tell he was thinking deeply about what you’d asked,” said Metcalfe.
“When you got an answer, you knew it wasn’t just something off the top of his head but a careful answer.”
His approach to teaching was not only historical-based, she said, but also how history impacts the world today.
“I remember him talking to us a lot about the post-modern Church and post-Christendom. His philosophical understanding of what’s happening in the world now was just absolutely phenomenal,” said Metcalfe.
MacDonald grew up on a farm outside of St. Albert, the youngest of five children.
Education and learning were his forte. He began Grade 11 at St. Anthony’s School at age 14 because he was such an exceptional student. After high school, he intended on studying English literature but chose theology instead.
At age 18, he seriously considered his calling to the Franciscan Friars. Two years later, he entered the novitiate in Quebec. He was ordained a priest Aug. 14, 1960. He spent from 1961 to 1964 pastoring and teaching in Regina. Education was definitely his ministry.
“He has certainly made significant contributions in that area. He is very gifted in his ability to instruct people and to make theology come alive,” said Kevin Carr.
Carr, with Edmonton Catholic Schools for 30 years and president of Newman Theological College for eight years, often crossed paths with MacDonald and other Franciscans over the years. He was also a student of MacDonald’s.
“I would categorize him as a gifted scholar and teacher. I would also categorize him as a person who is deeply committed to the Church, and committed to the role of theology in terms of helping people to better understand and be committed to their faith,” said Carr.
MacDonald is a founding member of Newman College, and served many roles on the faculty over the past 40 years, including president and dean of theology. He has also served as provincial minister of the Franciscans of Western Canada.
“When the college first opened up it was mandated to the instruction of the broader community and laypeople. Don was a force involved at that time. You can’t underestimate the contributions that he made in helping the college survive through the years – not only survive but flourish,” said Carr.
Over the years MacDonald has been questioned why he stayed so actively involved at Newman when he had other opportunities. One reason is that he wanted to stay in Edmonton where the Franciscans are based.
“A major reason is that history taught me that when an area of the Church as extensive as that between Toronto and Vancouver does not have an institution that guides theological thinking, there are disastrous results,” said MacDonald.
Judy Darbyson worked as assistant registrar at Newman for three years, and is now taking a course with MacDonald on the Second Vatican Council. She described him as knowledgeable, skilled at explaining complex subjects, and a man with a genuine love for Newman College.
“You can see he gets excited teaching because he was a young priest when Vatican II took place. You can see him come alive when he talks about it. He understands it so well, and I’m glad I’m taking the course from him because now I understand it in a way I never did before,” said Darbyson.
Said MacDonald: “Christian theology has to be, by its very nature, pastoral. I never taught anything that I thought could not be prayed, lived and shared with others. Ever since Jesus said he is the way, the truth and life, that’s the way it has to be.”