Msgr. James M. McDonald in an undated photo.

Msgr. James M. McDonald in an undated photo. Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz

Then-college freshman Sean Magaldi was attending a retreat at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington when Msgr. James McDonald spotted him in the lobby.

McDonald, then the seminary’s rector, tore off his clerical collar and held it up to Magaldi. “This would look good on you,” McDonald told him.

It was a typical move for McDonald, an energetic evangelizer known as the “vocations pastor,” who never passed up an opportunity to tell a promising young man that the religious life might be for him.

McDonald, who also ministered at eight parishes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre over five decades, died Nov. 16. He was 77.

He "shepherded so many vocations to the priesthood and religious life,” said Bishop John Barres, head of the diocese. “He is a champion of young people having a deep relationship with Christ and advancing the mission of the Church as missionary disciples. He called all of us to be courageously holy.”

A talkative, upbeat priest, McDonald never had doubts about his own vocation. He once told Newsday he knew he wanted to be a priest from the age of 6.

“I didn’t have to think about it. God called, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m ready!’ ” he said in a podcast this year. “I didn’t have to discern. I just went!”

James McDonald in the sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist...

James McDonald in the sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in East Moriches on Nov. 11, 1996, months after the TWA Flight 800 crash.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

He was so enamored of the church and of his vocation that he would tell others he was careful to check his watch every May 27 and recall that at 11:27 a.m. that day in 1967, the day of his ordination, he “became a priest forever,” said Bishop William Murphy, former head of the diocese.

Magaldi, who was ordained in 2015, said McDonald “taught me everything about being a priest.”

The Rev. Robert Ketcham, chaplain at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, said McDonald had a similar impact on him when McDonald was pastor at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Center Moriches, Ketcham’s home parish, from 1990 to 2000.

“Msgr. McDonald was the pastor of my parish when I was a little boy and the father of my soul from adolescence into adulthood,” Ketcham told the Long Island Catholic. “He remains for me now, in death as he was in life, my fine pastor. He is the voice of my conscience.”

McDonald’s faith was effervescent and unshakable. He would pray the rosary daily in its entirety.

In 2007, five years after the clergy sex abuse scandal broke and amid declining vocations and Mass attendance, McDonald told Newsday he was confident the Church would weather the lows and come back strong.

“You cannot eradicate the Catholic Church,” he said. “It will last until the end of time.”

McDonald faced difficult times as a priest. While serving in Center Moriches, he was one of the first people to run down to the beach after TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people aboard on July 17, 1996. McDonald performed last rites on the beach.

Two weeks after the Flight 800 crash, McDonald presided over the funeral of two parishioners killed in the crash, Eric and Virginia Holst. He had married them in the same church six years before.

"There's nobody in this church who doesn't have a question for God," McDonald said at the service. "But we know in time, when we are all with Him and Eric and Virginia, that all things will be made clear."

"In my own mind, there was an overwhelming sense of tragedy and heartbreak," he told Newsday 10 years later. He said he had "the sense that you were in the center of an event that would change you for the rest of your life, in the sense that I had never experienced such a colossal tragedy."

McDonald was born in Brooklyn in 1941, one of five children. His family later moved to Garden City, where he attended St. Joseph’s School. He went on to Chaminade High School, Cathedral College, and the seminary in Huntington.

After ordination he first served at the Church of St. Matthew in Dix Hills, and went on to minister at Catholic parishes in Great Neck, Lindenhurst, Kings Park, Deer Park, and Mineola. He most recently ministered at the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park.

Pope John Paul II made him a monsignor in 1996.

A decade later, in 2006, Murphy named McDonald rector of the seminary, even though McDonald lacked advanced degrees.

Murphy retorted that McDonald already held a “doctorate in the priesthood.”

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