by Paulette Curran.
Though many in Madonna House come from unlikely backgrounds, there are others whose life with God grew naturally in the rich soil of a family and culture steeped in the Gospel. Such a one was Ronnie MacDonell.
The culture which nurtured him, one little known outside of Canada, is that of the Scots of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
On this beautiful Atlantic island, isolated by ocean and with highlands much like those of their ancestors, the people kept their Catholic faith and Scottish ways.
Ronnie’s family farmed and owned a hotel, and he learned early to work hard. From his mother, who often gave rooms to people who could not pay, he learned that nothing is more important than loving and serving others.
Ronnie was still a child when the Antigonish Movement, a co-operative movement begun by Dr. Moses Coady in Nova Scotia, was brought to Cape Breton. This movement made people aware of their economic exploitation and taught them how to change it.
It also greatly enriched their lives, bringing bookmobiles, libraries, and a folk school which encouraged people to stay on the land and taught them ways of bettering their lives.
Ronnie listened wide-eyed as the adults talked about these things. As he grew older, he helped start both a consumer and a fishermen’s co-op. As he did so, he imbibed co-op values: the importance of working together for the common good and belief in the dignity of all people as children of God.
Ronnie’s heart was aflame. He wanted to help the poor everywhere. When he graduated from school, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a missionary priest. Little did he dream it would be years before he found his vocation.
He applied to the Scarborough Foreign Mission Society, but to his deep disappointment they told him he did not have a vocation with them.
What to do? To find out, he traveled to the States to visit various groups that worked among the poor.
Among them was Catherine Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem. Though the work there drew him, he didn’t stay long. He was looking for a lifelong commitment and Friendship House did not offer this.
His search was soon interrupted. His parents were both sick, and with his brothers and sister all at school, they needed his help. He returned home.
Besides his work with the family hotel and farm, he found much to do that stirred his heart. He was involved in the folk school, started a cell of the Young Christian Workers, and seeing that young people needed recreational activities, he organized folk dances and movies.
Ronnie was also interested in farming and, along with other Young Christian Workers, talked about forming a community of families farming together. His parents offered him the family farm, and he seriously considered marriage.
He also wanted to get into adult education, but to do this, he first needed to get more education himself. In the providence of God, the course he planned to take was in Ottawa, a three-hour drive from Combermere.
Since he was so close, he decided, just before class began, to hitchhike to Madonna House for a weekend visit. On arriving, he was surprised and happy to discover that the members of Catherine’s apostolate now made promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. One could join it for life!
Perhaps this was his vocation. He postponed his course for a semester and stayed to see. When the time came for a decision, he was in agony.
He could clearly see the fruitfulness of celibacy and that there were needs in the world that required the full dedication of single people, and he loved Madonna House. But he also loved his life and work in Cape Breton.
What made his decision so excruciating was that at MH, one does not choose the work one will do. If he joined, he might never work directly for the poor or for social justice.
But he felt God was calling him to MH and he knew that, if this were so, he would never be happy anywhere else.
He made an act of deep surrender and faith. In 1955, after years of searching, Ronnie, then 27 years old, joined Madonna House.
These were pioneering years in Combermere. At a time when almost none of the members knew anything about farming, Ronnie’s experience proved invaluable.
Along with two men from large American cities, Ronnie was assigned to begin a farm. He knew, as the others could not, that the task was overwhelming and that it would take 25 to 50 years to develop our sandy, rocky soil so it would really produce.
For the next 33 years, Ronnie worked on the farm. "What kept you at it?" I asked.
"I trusted that God’s plan would unfold in my life, and in faith I believed that a celibate life would bear fruit in the kingdom.
"I was also sustained by Catherine’s vision of restoring farming to what God meant it to be, to methods that respect and nourish the land. I knew that it was a vital part of restoring the world to Christ.
"Also, I was working to feed the family. And, though I myself was not working directly for social justice and with the poor, it was enough to know that others in Madonna House were."
Ronnie’s love for the poor and hunger for social justice continued. He never ceased reading about what was being done worldwide. Whenever a visitor came who was involved with this work, Ronnie would learn from him and share ideas. He spent his vacations visiting people, organizations, and farms working for development and justice.
In 1989, when Ronnie was 61 years old, he was assigned for the first time to a foreign mission: Liberia, West Africa. "I would have been content to stay at the farm for the rest of my life," he said, "but the directors of the community thought I needed a change."
Actually, he ended up serving in several of our overseas houses: England, Liberia, Ghana, and Brazil.
He farmed in Ghana and Liberia, our houses in West Africa, where people marveled to see a white man working in the fields. He worked in a co-op in Liberia teaching young African men.
During the civil war in Liberia, after the women staff had left the country, he stayed on for a time and with the help of volunteers, carried on the work of the house.
In 1997, while Ronnie was in MH Brazil, the farm in Combermere was suddenly left with no one trained in animal care. Ever faithful, Ronnie stepped in.
And so the farmer, the social justice activist, the foreign missionary, was now back at the work he had done for so many years, serving God and neighbor in the daily duties of a farmer.
In those last farming years, Ronnie had a couple of short stints in Carriacou, West Indies. Then when he was no longer able to farm—he was by then in his 70s—he worked at Our Lady of the Visitation, the residence for our elderly members, as a care-giver.
The final stage was as a resident of Our Lady of the Visitation himself, for Ronnie was by then suffering from cancer.
Ronnie MacDonell died a little more than a month short of his 82nd birthday. His had been a rich life indeed—one that had been fertilized and shaped by suffering, work, love, fidelity, and surrender, in the fertile soil of Cape Breton and Combermere. The seed had produced a hundredfold.
—Adapted from Restoration, March 2000
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