COLUMBIA—A composition teacher at Lugoff-Elgin High School made a suggestion that sparked Father Sandy McDonald’s vocation to the priesthood.
He had been immersed in the faith since birth, raised one of seven children in a strong Catholic home. In high school, McDonald became more interested in learning about his faith and when asked to write an essay about an inspiring person, he chose a religious education teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Camden.
“My composition teacher read it and looked up at me in the classroom and asked ‘Sandy, did you ever think about becoming a priest?’” Father McDonald said recently. “It was then I realized that was a real possibility.”
That moment of inspiration started him on the road that led to his ordination in 1991.
Now, as he celebrates his 25th jubilee, Father McDonald realizes that teacher’s remark was part of what led him to the life of ministry and service that he loves.
He currently serves as pastor at St. John Neumann Church in Columbia, an active and diverse parish with many members who share Father McDonald’s love for social and ecumenical outreach.
The priest credits his parents, Ellie McDonald and the late Clay McDonald, with laying down a solid foundation of love and faith for their children. The Church was at the center of everything they did.
“Ours was the kind of home where you knew if you were going out of town for the weekend for a band trip or something, you still had to find a way to get to Mass,” he said with a smile.
After graduating high school, he continued discerning whether the priesthood was for him during studies at the College of Charleston, where he received spiritual guidance from a priest who was leading campus ministry there at the time.
He then applied to become a seminarian and began his studies at the now defunct St. Pius X Seminary at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and then moved on to Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
He took a two year break at one point during his seminary studies “because it seemed like everything was moving too fast,” but returned because he knew where God wanted him to be. On July 6, 1991, he was ordained at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston.
As a priest, Father McDonald has served parishes in many different regions of the diocese. His early assignments included working as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Columbia and St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken. He then took over the role of pastor for the first time at St. Anthony Church and St. James the Greater Mission in Walterboro.
During his early years of priesthood, he was also deeply involved in the Synod of Charleston, convened in 1992 by the late Bishop David B. Thompson.
“The Synod was an exciting time, seeing the welling up of energies of the laity and of the Church in South Carolina as a whole,” he said. “It really showed me that my role as a priest is helping people to be engaged in the Gospel in their daily lives.”
Part of his work was preparing the Synod’s document on ecumenical outreach, which became one of his passions and eventually led to his appointment as Vicar of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the diocese.
“Focusing on ecumenism offered me an exciting perspective on the possibilities of finding commonality between different denominations,” he said. “By nature I’m a peacemaker, and the whole idea of finding what unites us instead of divides us appeals to me.”
After leaving Walterboro, he spent 10 years as pastor of Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta, where he learned how to lead a parish with a school for the first time and also received an introduction to Hispanic ministry.
His next assignment was as pastor of St. Andrew Church in Clemson, with missions of St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca and St. Francis of Assisi in Walhalla. Shepherding three congregations was a challenge, but he said the love and commitment of the people made his work a joy.
“Because there were three churches involved, everyone had to work as a team and they did,” he said. “We benefited from the energy of the college students at Clemson University, people who wanted to make sure the university was involved in the parish; and the talents of the retirees who moved into the area. I learned just how gifted the laity is.”
In 2010, Father McDonald returned to the Midlands to serve as pastor at St. John Neumann. The move was good for him, both in a pastoral and a personal sense, he said. He was able to spend time with his father, now deceased, and assist his mother, who cared for her husband in their Camden home while he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
“In a way, coming here was coming back home,” Father McDonald said. “My family is close, this parish has a wonderful school and wonderful people, and there is a commitment here to reaching out to people in need in the community. Everything that brings me joy in the Church is here.”
Top photo provided: Father McDonald poses with the late Bishop David B. Thompson at his ordination at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1991.