CLEMSON—Father C. Alexander “Sandy” McDonald credits a Baptist with helping convince him 32 years ago to enter the priesthood.
The Augusta, Ga., native and pastor of three Upstate churches was 17 when Margot Rochester, his high school English teacher, gave the class a project that turned out to be providential.
“We had an assignment to write an essay about someone who had influenced us,” Father McDonald said. “I wrote about Frank Pfohl, my junior-year Sunday school teacher.”
As Rochester graded his paper during class, she looked up at him and asked: “Sandy, have you ever thought about becoming a priest?”
Father McDonald, who turns 49 in June, said that question released something in him that would bubble to the surface a short time later.
The fourth of seven children, the McDonald family lived in Aiken. His father Clayton was raised in Chicago, while his mother Eleanor was raised in Eutawville. The two met in Aiken while working at the Savannah River Plant.
“My father worked as an engineer for DuPont, the company that ran SRP at the time,” Father McDonald said.
The family moved to Delaware in 1963 and lived there for five years before returning to South Carolina. They attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Camden.
“We never missed Mass, and you could count on my parents’ involvement in parish activities,” Father McDonald said. “In many ways, our life revolved around OLPH.”
He credits Mgsr. Donald Hamburger, then pastor of the church, with first planting the idea of someday becoming a priest. He was nine at the time.
“He was a larger-than-life pastor,” Father McDonald said. “He was always friendly and definitely loved by the people.”
After high school and the encounter with Rochester, Father McDonald enrolled at the College of Charleston.
“[Msgr.] Sam Miglarese was the campus minister. He made the word of God exciting in his homilies. He also happened to be the vocation director for the diocese,” he said.
With Msgr. Miglarese’s encouragement, Father McDonald transferred to the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college in Pennsylvania, and his formation was at St. Pius X Seminary. He graduated in 1983 and entered The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for theological studies with seminary formation at Theological College.
He seemed to be on the fast track to the priesthood, perhaps a bit too fast.
“I wanted to take more time to discern what I wanted to do, so I took a leave for three years and worked in Columbia,” he said.
He returned in 1988 and two years later was ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop David B. Thompson.
Father McDonald stayed in Washington to work on a licentiate in systematic theology, which he finished in 1992. By then he was ordained a priest. The teacher who posed that simple question to her student more than a decade earlier attended Father McDonald’s first Mass.
He served as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Columbia and two years later at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken. His first pastorship was at St. Anthony Church and St. James, the Greater Mission in Walterboro.
In 1996, Father McDonald was assigned to Our Lady of Peace Church in North Augusta, before coming to the Upstate in 2006. He’s now pastor of St. Andrew Church in Clemson, St. Paul the Apostle Mission in Seneca, and St. Francis Mission in Walhalla.
All of his siblings have remained in the Southeast, including a sister in Rome, Ga., a brother in Auburn, Ala., a brother in Chattanooga, a brother in Charleston, and two sisters in Clemson.
“I enjoy preaching and presiding at Mass,” he said. “I find the creativity that is needed to make the word of God come alive and be relevant to be a challenge and fun.
“Being a priest allows a kind of instant access to the most powerful of human experiences: birth, death, sickness, conversion of heart, commitment, confession of faith,” he said. “People allow us into their lives with such great trust.”
He started an education outreach program for Hispanics at Our Lady of Peace. The parish worked through Mexico’s department of education and an Internet-based portal that allowed people to earn a high school diploma.
“It was a fantastic platform to do education and community building,” he said.
More recently, the three Upstate parishes started a support group called Work Forward, where parishioners with job-seeking experience serve as resource guides to those looking for employment.
To relax, Father McDonald heads to the kitchen or to the lake.
“I enjoy cooking. I also have a small sailboat, though I confess I haven’t been out on it for a year. But I hope to change that as soon as possible,” he said.
Father McDonald encourages more people to follow the lead of his former teacher.
“Don’t discount the power of suggesting to someone that they might be good in a church vocation,” he said. “You never know, it might help them see themselves in the role of a deacon, religious or lay ecclesial minister.”
Or maybe in the role of a priest.