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Charles W. MacDonald.Courtesy of family

Charles W. MacDonald: Professor. Priest. Organizer. Family man. Born Dec. 8, 1937, in Dominion, Cape Breton, N.S.; died March 21, 2021, in Sydney, Cape Breton, N.S.; of complications from several strokes; aged 83.

Charles MacDonald was born the son of a carpenter amidst the Antigonish Movement in rural Nova Scotia. The movement urged people to mobilize and work collectively – to be “masters of their own destiny” in the face of economic downturn and hardship.

With these values instilled in him, Charles went to St. Francis Xavier University, but not before meeting Sharon Mugford. There are many photos of them with young fresh faces dancing together in the 1950s. However, that love story had to wait as Charles, once he graduated, went on to the priesthood. He completed a Licentiate in Theology and began his lifelong love of teaching at St. FX’s campus.

In the late 1960s, he packed his things to study at Tubingen University in Germany, then the leading centre of theology in Western Europe. Charles thrived while surrounded by other theologians and academics. He spoke Latin and English, and added German. When he completed his doctorate, his supervisor was Joseph Ratzinger, who years later became Pope Benedict XVI. Mr. Ratzinger and Charles did not often see eye-to-eye on issues but they remained in touch and Charles visited his old colleague several times at the Vatican and other papal residences.

Charles could have taught anywhere. However, he returned to what was then the College of Cape Breton. His colleagues were urging him to support the development of the independent university for the region. After strong efforts on behalf of Charles and his colleagues, the College of Cape Breton, now called Cape Breton University, was presented with its own University Charter in 1982.

Charles was forever an advocate for the underdog – often to his own detriment. When the university faculty went on strike, Charles was seconded to a managerial position but he didn’t want to cross the picket line. He asked the president if he could work from home. His request was denied; so he quit. The move made waves all the way up to the Canadian Association of University Teachers and is cited as the cause of a shift in the negotiations, solidifying the faculty union at CBU.

Sharon lived another life during much of this. She married in Ontario and had three children. But when that marriage was over, she became a single working mother in Toronto. Charles became reacquainted with her and, still smitten, began sending love letters and flowers from Nova Scotia. But Charles was still a priest. And so, he made another courageous decision, this time in the name of love. He left the clergy and married his high-school sweetheart in 1984.

Charles invited his new family to his farm in Point Edward, Cape Breton. All of a sudden, he had chickens, pigs, donkeys, cattle – and three children aged 9, 12 and 19! Both Sharon and Charles worked tirelessly to make the Cape Breton Farmer’s Market a success and this instilled a passion in his stepson, Rick, whom he farmed alongside until they were both much older men.

In the end, Charles found himself where he should be – in Cape Breton, passionately working for others. If you were to accompany him on an errand, Charles spoke to everyone he knew and if he didn’t know someone, he would stop and introduce himself. Trips to the co-op or the library were like a receiving line. (As a child under his care, this was dreadfully boring, but as an adult at his side, it was very endearing.) The list of boards, committees and working groups that he was a part of is long. But when I mention my grandfather to others in the community, I often hear the words “kind” and “good.” What a legacy that is to leave.

Sarah MacDonald is Charles’s granddaughter.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide