Fr. Duncan MacDonnell was a passionate fighter for social justice and a good pastor in several archdiocesan parishes.


Fr. Duncan MacDonnell was a passionate fighter for social justice and a good pastor in several archdiocesan parishes.

February 25, 2013

He was a gentle soul and a patient pastor who was always present to his people. Father Duncan MacDonnell typified what every Catholic wants in their spiritual shepherd.

But make no mistake. Behind the quiet demeanour was a man committed to the fight for justice. MacDonnell opposed the Iraq War, called the U.S. an "evil empire," and had a distaste for big multinationals which he said put profits before people and the environment.

He had a strong heart for the poor and, as a founder of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission, MacDonnell was not afraid to advance the social teaching of the Church.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil, who had known MacDonnell and his family for more than 60 years, once described him as the epitome of a good priest.

"He has a heart like that of Jesus. In him, we see a reflection of Jesus Christ," MacNeil said in a 2004 interview. "He is a man of God and a man of the people. He is a man of prayer and a man of integrity."

MacDonnell finally retired from full-time parish ministry in 2005 at age 81 and moved to Villa Vianney, where he lived with other retired priests. However, he continued to help out, filling in for other priests on Sundays or hearing confessions in the parishes.

MacDonnell died Sunday, Feb. 10 at the age of 88. He is survived by his sister Theresa MacDonnell, his sister-in-law Claire MacDonnell and foster brother Joseph Procter, as well as many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.


MacDonnell was born in New Glasgow, N.S., Dec. 9, 1924. As a young man, he spent time in the army both in Canada and in Europe during the Second World War.

He came to Edmonton in 1950, entered St. Joseph's Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood June 4, 1955 in Antigonish, N.S. After that, he was assigned to various parishes around the archdiocese.

In 1966 he opened a mission in Peru and spent six years working in the area outside of Lima. Upon his return to Canada in 1972, he again took up parish work. His last parish before retiring was Our Lady of Angels in Fort Sask-atchewan.

According to his friend Father Don Stein, who lives at Villa Vianney, MacDonnell was a "good advisor" to the priests of the archdiocese.

"If anybody needed advice about priestly matters, he would go and see him," recalled Stein. "He was a true brother priest. He was a wonderful example to us in his simplicity of life and his dedication to the priesthood."

As a war veteran, McDonnell was conscious of the need for peace and justice in the world, Stein said. He was also very conscious of the poor.


"In his prayers while he was in the villa here, he would always zero in the homeless and the needy," Stein said, pointing back to MacDonnell's years in Peru.

"He lived in poverty there and so the plight of the poor was always important to him and he shared this by his comments, in his prayers and in action. He was always ready to help the poor and the needy."

In fact, MacDonnell was an associate member of the Madonna House Apostolate, which strives to help the poor and the marginalized through houses such as the Marian Centre in Edmonton's inner city.

For fun, MacDonnell played cards, especially bridge, and he was an excellent player, according to Stein. "That's how we could tell he was still quite alert."

However, MacDonnell eventually lost his ability to drive and turned in his car keys. "That was a big loss for him," recalled Stein. Four or five months ago, he needed oxygen and had to leave for Foyer Lacombe, the infirmary of the Oblate Fathers in St. Albert, where he died of a heart attack.


"He was a wonderful human being and a wonderful pastor," MacNeil said Feb. 15. "He was a priest who loved being a priest and was loved by the people."

MacDonnell was happy that the Church had established the Second Vatican Council, according to the retired archbishop. "He saw it as a way for the Church to reach out to more people and for the laity to become involved in the Church."

MacNeil also described MacDonnell as "a very personable man and very friendly," whose major contribution to the Church was his love for the people.


"In a way he was bringing the face of Jesus Christ to people, Jesus' love, Jesus' respect for people and Jesus' desire to involve people in helping one another and making this a better world."

MacNeil said many, many people will miss MacDonnell dearly "because he was a friend and for many people he was a model."

That's why during MacNeil's tenure the archdiocese would send young priests to work with him and basically say to them, "If you want to be a good priest, follow Father Duncan."

Father John Hesse, a classmate of MacDonnell, presided at Vigil Prayers for the priest at St. Joseph's Basilica Feb. 15. The following day Archbishop Richard Smith celebrated a Mass of Christian Burial at the basilica. Internment followed at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on Mark Messier Trail.