View Record Number 6104

View Record Number 6104 - Fr. Donald Joseph MacKay

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Name:Fr. Donald Joseph MacKay
Address:St Peter's RC Church
Isle of South Uist
Originally from:Garrynamonie
Place of death:Uist & Barra Hospital
Date of funeral:17/08/2017
Funeral Location:St. Peter's RC Church, Daliburgh
Additional Info:Canon Donald Joseph MacKay (Argyll and the Isles) – Sunday 13 August 2017
Written by Fr. Michael Briody, parish priest of Moodiesburn, Diocese of Motherwell, and dear friend of Canon MacKay

(Note: You can download and print this obituary in .pdf by clicking the link below this text.)

Rev. Donald J. MacKay was ordained in St. Columba’s Cathedral, Oban, by Bishop Colin MacPherson, on 8th July, 1976. He was appointed to teach at St. Vincent’s College, Langbank for one year, after which he took up a succession of curacies in the diocese at Oban, 1977-79; Daliburgh, 1979-80 and Fort William, 1980-84. At the beginning of 1985 he went out to Spain to be vice-rector of the Royal Scots College, Valladolid and was instrumental in its move to Salamanca in 1988. He came back to Scotland in 1991 to be parish priest at Castlebay, Isle of Barra. In 2001, Bishop Murray appointed him administrator of the Cathedral, and canon of the Cathedral Chapter in 2003. In 2009, Bishop Toal appointed him Chancellor of the Diocese and in 2011, parish priest of his native parish of St. Peter’s, Daliburgh, and St. Michael’s, Eriskay. He died in the Uist and Barra Hospital, Benbecula, on Sunday 13 August 2017. His body was placed before the altar of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie, for three days to receive the prayers and respects of his people. On Thursday, 17 August, his Funeral Mass was concelebrated in St. Peter’s, Daliburgh, by Bishop Brian McGee and priests from the diocese and beyond, with a large congregation of parishioners, family and friends from the isles and the mainland. He was buried at Hallan Cemetery beside his parents.

Donald Joseph MacKay was born in Glasgow on 30 August 1952. His mother, Kirsty (née MacPhee), had taken the decision to go into a Glasgow hospital for the birth. Here he was baptised, “in danger of death”, by a nurse who became a life-long connection. He visited her when she was dying only a few years ago. Despite the initial panic, he was brought home to South Uist without much delay to be introduced to his father Alick, and his brother Alastair. Their older brother, Donald James had died in infancy. His father was the local schoolmaster and they lived in the schoolhouse at Garrynamonie, across the road from Our Lady of Sorrows, a chapel-of-ease in the parish of St. Peter’s, Daliburgh. Summer holidays were spent living with relatives further north on South Uist at Gerinish and Eochar. Here he formed strong bonds with his extended family which, in time, worked their way down through the generations to the youngest arrivals of today. He became the hinge upon which the family hung. He made great efforts to be present at all the family events, whether on island or mainland, and eventually dates were not fixed until it was known if Fr. Donald could be there. He related well to the younger generation of the family and formed good relations with them. They discovered he was genuinely interested in how they were getting on, what they were doing, what their plans were. He was also the one who had the courage to say something incisive if required, without batting an eyelid, but more usually could be relied upon to deflate typical family tensions with one of his witty asides.

Friendship, relationship, acquaintance were supremely important to him. Whether it was contemporaries of his from childhood, fellow-seminarians ordained and un-ordained from Langbank, Blairs and Valladolid, his brother priests of the diocese and further afield, the parishioners he served in Oban, Daliburgh, Fort William and Barra, the students he helped train for the priesthood, or the many other people he was connected with over the years, to all he gave the impression of being genuinely interested in them as with his own family. Many had the rather unnerving experience of the “rapid-fire”, as he called it himself, the initial conversation that quickly became a session of twenty questions about your entire life story so far. Some thought him inquisitive, which he would hardly deny, but judgement over a longer period considered him caring and genuinely interested in others. Parishioners would say that you always knew where you were with him. On important matters you always got a straight answer (although he never got out of the habit of answering a question with a question when he felt the matter was trivial). His brother priests will miss the phone calls as they will miss phoning him. In particular, in the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, where he had been a noticeable presence since his ordination in Oban Cathedral in 1976, his observation, wit and wisdom are already sorely missed. If a priest had a problem or a query, it was always considered worth phoning Donald.

This spirit of availability sprung from his upbringing in Hebridean culture. He always had time for people, not just people whose company he enjoyed, but any person, however challenging, who came to his open door. And it was open. He genuinely hated locked doors. His chapel-house was open day and night, literally (although he scoffed at people who used the word “literally” as a mere emphatic!) Time was from God to be used for God and God’s People. He served parishioners diligently and without any delay, especially the sick and housebound, the bereaved and any in difficulty. A fortnight before he died, already forbidden to drive, one of his young relatives drove him round for the “Lapich” (bringing Holy Communion to the sick). There was no neglect of pastoral concerns nor any sense among parishioners that he was neglecting them because of his illness, and Bishop McGee also noted that for all Fr. Donald’s anxiety about not getting deskwork done, for him always a poor second to looking after people, the Bishop found his administration of the parish appreciatively up-to-date. His illness, in fact, widened his parish because he extended his priestly work to his fellow hospital patients, visiting them, chatting, praying with them. A priest who was bringing Holy Communion to him in the Beatson was texted: “bring four hosts, and there are two for anointing”!

This outgoing nature found a modern application with the communications revolution. Fr. Donald’s mobile phone number and e-mail address became freely available. His phone would ping incessantly with texts and e-mails, although some were alarms to remind him of Mass in Sacred Heart House, or going to pick up Alastair, or just to take the statins. He was an early convert to the modern gizmos: the Imac, Ipad and Iphone were all mastered and used for keeping in touch with his vast array of relatives, friends and acquaintances, many of whom were to visit him in hospital, and he gloried in the declaration by the nurses that he had more visitors than any other patient, by far. The technology was also used for a wide range of pastoral purposes and personal matters, but even he had his moments of frustration with computers that wouldn’t do as they were told. From this he formed a new definition of insanity: “going through exactly the same process several times on the computer expecting it to do something different from what it had done before”!

The Ipad became a constant companion on his travels because it was lighter than the breviary and so he could keep up more easily with the Daily Prayer of the Church, to which he was very faithful. How he enjoyed that final tap on the screen each night which would have the Ipad sing the “Salve Regina” to him. He went to great lengths to ensure he got to daily Mass when away from home, and visits to Glasgow were opportunities for Confession and haircuts – two similar operations, he would tell you. He would think he had a quiet, understated spirituality but frequently professed a strong belief in Divine Providence. It was Divine Providence that his mother died on South Uist just before he left Barra for a new appointment in Oban. It was Divine Providence that he was appointed to Daliburgh because it helped to form a closer relationship with his brother Alastair which had always suffered from Donald being away from Uist. It was Divine Providence that his cancer came when he was out on the islands because he was able to cope better there with all that the treatment involved than if he had been on the mainland, he always said. He was completely open, alarmingly for some, about his cancer, as his parish bulletins will attest. He saw no point to subterfuge in the age of social media. He always had to hand a copy of Hebridean Altars, a collection of English translations of Gaelic prayers and reflections, of long tradition. He frequently used quotes from it. These sayings revealed something of his spiritual thought processes. On his Silver Jubilee prayer-card he had: “Jesus, Lord of the calm, and of the storm, whatever seas I sail upon, be Thou my helm, my compass and my port.” Even more telling, in the last two parish weekly bulletins he produced within a month of his death he chose to print: “As the rain hides the stars, as the autumn mist hides the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of Thy Face from me. Yet, if I may hold Thy Hand in the darkness, it is enough, since I know that, though I may stumble in my going, Thou dost not fall”. Nowadays people lament the chasm that has opened up between Faith and culture. For Father Donald MacKay no such gap existed. He exemplified how genuine Hebridean culture and Catholic Faith are naturally married to each other.

For a Hebridean, naturally, his native tongue was Gaelic. He told the story, in his usual entertaining style, of how, when he was accepted as a student for the priesthood for the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles in 1964, his father decided that they should prepare for his entry into St. Vincent’s College, Langbank, by going for a walk each Sunday afternoon for an hour when they would speak only English. He was to discover some people in the college who could have benefitted from something similar, and they weren’t Gaelic speakers! Apart from confessing, in more recent times, that he never texted in Gaelic, it was the language he always supported in daily conversation, including on the phone. He did a colossal amount of work to provide proper texts so that the Mass and the Sacraments could be celebrated in Gaelic. He may have had a great knowledge of Gaelic, but above all he had a great love for his native tongue, and that made him an acknowledged authority on it.

He had other great loves. He was a “Spaniard”, a student of the Royal Scots College, Spain. He loved his six years as a student and he was eyed with great jealousy by his fellow Spaniards when he was able to go back for a further six years as vice-rector to Fr. John McGee, and then to Monsignor Ian Murray, who would be his bishop a few years later, and his neighbour in Oban. Present for some of this time was Fr. John P. MacAulay (“Seonaidh”), his fellow Daliburgh parishioner and friend. They had gone through twelve years of seminary together where they were regarded as being as thick as thieves and known for a time as “Shonald”. They had been ordained together by Bishop MacPherson. Sadly, Fr. Seonaidh died in the year 2000, aged forty-nine.

This second stint in Spain was the period when the college moved from Valladolid to Salamanca, in which Fr. Donald was much involved. He would show you the very spot on the street where, walking home from an evening out, he says he convinced Mgr. Murray that he should move the college. His students saw he was uncomfortable with the disciplinary role he had to play, and while being a very good observer of boundaries, he showed he was more interested in helping them forward in a friendly way. He kept up a good relationship with several of them. They visited him in hospital decades later, and they came to his funeral. With them he shared a great love of Spain, and it was a disappointment to him when his closest advisors looked askance when he proposed a visit a few months ago to Madrid, Segovia and other favourite haunts, when he was manifestly not well enough to travel.

He had a determined streak, which was not always appreciated, especially when he got the bit between his teeth on any contentious issue. No government official between Daliburgh and Edinburgh needed to ask who he was. He was the priest who was leading from the front in the matter of securing a dependable ferry crossing from Lochboisdale to the mainland. Like generations of Hebridean priests before him, he got genuinely involved in the matters that would benefit the community. This determined nature stood him in good stead when he became ill. He persevered through illness, with great dignity, demanding to be in control of all that doctors and nurses might propose. He did not want to be drugged beyond consciousness, but actually wanted to be able to track where the pain was developing, so that he had a good idea of what was happening to him. In all this he was aided and abetted by his strong Faith coupled to an incisive sense of humour. Some found the black humour a bit difficult to take, but he had no mercy because this was his illness and his death so he was allowed to make humorous remarks about it. He was well known for his quick humour, observation and ripostes, of which there are many memories. To the waitress who brought him a miniscule portion of honey, only he could have thought to say: “I see you keep a bee!” On a phone call to a well-known business company with whom he had some gripe, he was told to hold the line while they put him through to their customer care department. ”Oh, you have one!”, he retorted. And, he could embarrass you. “Helping” a friend to buy a laptop, when the sales assistant offered a warranty for the first year, Donald opined: “That makes it sound as if something is wrong with it”! He had a particular penchant for giving people nicknames which he took from lines of Holy Scripture! This started in his student days in Valladolid. His was the only room door which had a fanlight above. This betrayed even when the smallest light was on, so he got lots of visitors. Four of the more regular callers were given “titles” from Psalm 90: the terror of the night; the arrow that flies by day; the plague that prowls in the darkness; the scourge that lays waste at noon. Other nicknames followed over the years. They were usually similarly unflattering!

He liked things to be done well. He was meticulous in matters liturgical. Many will long remember his supervisory role at the episcopal ordination of Bishop Toal, who later appointed him chancellor, a meticulous job. He was a thoughtful person, always remembering to bring gifts for those who offered him hospitality. He was renowned for the hospitality he himself offered to all, especially priests from all over the world, literally (that word again!). Life was never dull around Donald MacKay. At times he wondered if this was taking up too much of his attention but was re-assured when someone quoted St. Paul to him: “Make hospitality your special care.” (Romans 12:13) Six of the eight Scottish Dioceses were represented by concelebrating priests at a month’s mind Mass for his eternal repose organised by Bishop Toal in the Diocese of Motherwell. He was above all, the Man of Faith, for whom Catholic Faith and Priesthood were rooted in the very fibre of his being, and when that was all tested he lived with this conviction of a Gaelic hymn popular at funerals: Cha chrìoch am bàs dhuinn ach fàs às ùr dhuinn. Death is not the end for us but a new beginning.

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Mr. Alick Iain MacKay (Father) (deceased) view record.

Mrs. Christina MacKay (Mother) (deceased) view record.

View funeral documents/additional information of Fr. Donald Joseph MacKay (PDF)