Throughout much of Cape Breton and beyond, he’s simply known as Father Hughie.
With a shock of white hair and an exuberant laugh, in his 66 years as a Roman Catholic priest Rev. Hugh D. MacDonald has ministered to thousands of parishioners in communities from Sydney to Arichat to Port Hawkesbury to Iona.
But the 92-year-old is more apt to describe the members of his congregations as friends.
More than six decades after his ordination, MacDonald will retire in the coming weeks to Antigonish, leaving his most recent appointment at Stella Maris Parish in Creignish, where he has served for the past 20 years.
MacDonald grew up on a 200-acre family farm in Springfield, Antigonish County. He went on to receive an arts degree at St. F.X., working on the railroad in the summers to pay his way through school. While he had considered career paths including the RCMP, it was while at St. F. X. that MacDonald increasingly thought of entering the seminary.
“I liked girls, but in the back of my mind I had the seminary in mind,” MacDonald recalled, noting he was impressed by the priests who taught at St. F.X.
“I thought I’d try the seminary, and here I am 66 years later.”
It was a decision MacDonald never regretted. He was subsequently ordained in 1952. Among his initial appointments as a priest, MacDonald served in St. Peter’s, Iona and Sydney. His first appointment as parish priest came in Larry’s River, Guysborough County, where he served for nine years.
“I could write a book on that in itself,” MacDonald said.
Then it was on to Port Hawkesbury at a time when the community was booming, with the pulp mill in operation and when announcements had been made about other pending developments including the heavy water plant and Gulf Oil refinery.
“I spent a lot of time getting people places to live, and people were coming in from the west and all over the place looking for work, and they had families,” he said.
In 1980, MacDonald took a sabbatical to attend Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
“Times were changing in the church and I wasn’t changing with them,” MacDonald said.
Upon his return, MacDonald was posted to Richmond County, spending most of his time there in Arichat. Since 1998, his home parish has been Stella Maris in Creignish. MacDonald acknowledged that it is unusual to have a priest remain at one parish for that lengthy a period. He said the smaller parish was a good fit for him, as he got older.
“It’s not a busy place, I’m more busy with the people I know in Hawkesbury. I’ve been here so long I know a lot of people … I keep busy, I see people having little problems, want to have a little talk, that kind of stuff.
“I’m not saving the world, but I’m taking a crack at it, anyways.”
The bulk of MacDonald’s ministry takes place outside of the church’s walls, in the community. In addition to his dedication to his faith, it was the relationships that MacDonald developed with people over the years that sustained him and kept him engaged. He said he also enjoyed working with other faiths.
“Just give them an ear, that’s the big thing,” he said. “I have lots of friends. You’re never lonely.”
The diocese has had its share of difficult times during MacDonald’s time as priest, with a low point being the arrest of former Bishop Raymond Lahey on child pornography charges.
“That killed me, that really, really hurt,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald is known for his “Tim Horton’s ministry,” and has worked closely with people with addictions, which he says is some of the work that has meant the most to him. He has also ministered to those who are survivors of abuse.
“I would get a lot of calls on that sometimes, who were sexually abused, especially young people who were in situations that were just not tenable so I often took a person out of a house if he or she was being abused and put them in another place,” he said.
Bob Martin is one of the complainants in the Fen MacIntosh sexual abuse case. He first encountered MacDonald when he was an altar server at St. Joseph’s in Port Hawkesbury. Later, when he was an adolescent in the 1970s, it was MacDonald who played an instrumental role in getting him into a foster home. In recent years Martin has moved from Port Hawkesbury down the road to Port Hood, he said partially due to the fond memories he has of attending camp in the area and visiting the beach with MacDonald.
“He has a gift, he is such a lovely man,” Martin said. “He was so close and loving and kind.”
Now as he prepares for retirement, MacDonald said he’s been warned that the feeling of potentially not being as connected to the community is one of the biggest adjustments to expect.
“They tell me that you kind of miss the people,” he said. “You’re surrounded by people all your life and all of a sudden, you’re kind of alone. I’m not concerned about it, but I know it’s ahead of me.”
As long as his health remains good and he’s able to continue to drive — his licence was recently renewed for another three years — MacDonald said he will continue to visit his friends and will also help out at mass, from time to time.
“I’m kind of a people person. The people are my support, that’s why I enjoyed my life so much.”
Rev. Hugh D. MacDonald
• Age: 92
• Ordained in 1952
• Native of Springfield, Antigonish County
• Currently priest at Stella Maris Parish in Creignish
• Previously served in communities including Sydney, Iona, Port Hawkesbury and Arichat.