File photo shows Msgr. McDonald preaching to young people at Camp Quo Vadis in July. Ed Casey photo.
By Tina Dennelly
It’s hard to imagine a Sunday without a homily from the booming voice of Msgr. James McDonald echoing throughout the church, his hands tightly gripping the microphone as he races up and down the aisles enthusiastically leading his parishioners to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
The 77-year-old pastor of the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park and former rector of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception died Nov. 16. Using his Irish humor to disarm and open hearts, he was known for his passionate—but always gentle—call to bring people back to the sacraments, especially confession. He also encouraged almost every young man he met to consider a vocation to the priesthood.
Father Sean Magaldi, associate pastor at the Church of St. Patrick in Smithtown, will never forget the first time he met Msgr. McDonald. He was on a retreat at the seminary, and at one point when he saw him in the lobby, Msgr. McDonald took off his clerical collar and held it up to the young man. “This would look good on you,” Msgr. McDonald told him.
During Father Magaldi’s last year of college, Msgr. McDonald was appointed pastor of St. Aidan’s, Father Magaldi’s home parish. After his first year of seminary, Father Magaldi worked at the parish.
“He taught me everything about being a priest,” said Father Magaldi, who was ordained in 2015. “I learned a lesson every time I was with him. He was always directing me on how to do things, always leading me. Everything I do well as a priest I learned from him.”
Msgr. McDonald was beloved by many of the diocese’s young and recently ordained priests, many of whom credited the priest’s influence in their decision to pursue a vocation to the priesthood.
Msgr. McDonald was the pastor of my parish when I was a little boy and the father of my soul from adolescence into adulthood,” said Father Robert Ketcham, who was ordained in 2008 and currently serves as chaplain at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip. His home parish is the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Center Moriches, where Msgr. McDonald served as pastor from 1990 to 2000.
“He remains for me now, in death as he was in life, my fine pastor,” Father Ketcham said. “He is the voice of my conscience.”
Msgr. McDonald was known for praying the Rosary daily in its entirety—all 15 mysteries—and spoke often of his love for the Blessed Mother. He was passionate about the Eucharist. Over the years, Msgr. McDonald was a source of comfort and guidance for countless parishioners, sharing in joys as well as heartaches.
On July 17, 1996, while pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Msgr. McDonald was one of the first to run down to the beach after the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over the Atlantic Ocean. He would later discover that two of his parishioners on board, a couple whom he had married six years earlier, were among the victims. He presided over their funeral as well.
Upon the news of his passing, current and former parishioners were quick to post to Msgr. McDonald’s Facebook page.
“I feel so blessed that he came into our lives,” said one; “He was such a wonderful man who was always there for my family,” said another. “No one could give a homily like him.”
Many posted their wedding pictures with him; one posted a video of him baptizing their son. Several referred to him as their spiritual father.
Msgr. McDonald was born in Brooklyn on April 10, 1941, one of five children. His family moved to Garden City, where he attended St. Joseph’s School. He graduated from Chaminade High School, Mineola; Cathedral College, Brooklyn, and the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington.
Msgr. McDonald said he knew when he was six years old that he wanted to be a priest.
“I didn’t have to think about it. God called, and I said ‘Yes, I’m ready!’” he said in a podcast interview earlier this year. “I didn’t have to discern. I just went!”
After ordination on May 27, 1967, Msgr. McDonald served as associate pastor of the Church of St. Matthew in Dix Hills. He was also associate pastor of the churches of St. Aloysius in Great Neck, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lindenhurst, St. Joseph in Kings Park and SS. Cyril and Methodius in Deer Park. In 1988, he was named administrator of St. John the Evangelist, becoming its pastor 1990.
He was named Honorary Prelate to His Holiness, a monsignor, in 1996. From 2000 to 2006 he returned to St. Matthew’s in Dix Hills as pastor.
Without any advanced degrees, he was appointed rector of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in 2006. But at his appointment, Bishop William Murphy said he already held a “doctorate in the priesthood.”
Many referred to him as “the vocations pastor” because of all the young men he encouraged to the priesthood.
In 2009 he was appointed pastor of St. Aidan. Msgr. McDonald was also director of the Apostleship of Prayer in the diocese and director of the Nocturnal Adoration Society. He served as an advocate on the diocesan tribunal.
“[To encourage other priests] he would tell us: ‘At the end of your life, you’ll never know the amount of people whose lives you touched, how many people who are in heaven because of you,’” Father Magaldi said.
“Now, the same thing can be said about him.”
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Wednesday, Nov. 21, at 11 a.m. at St. Aidan’s. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Diocese of Rockville Centre Office of Vocations.