These children were among 350,000 people at Martyr’s Shrine for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1984. Photo courtesy of Martyr’s Shrine

Remembering a saint

  • September 12, 2014

Before George MacDonald met Pope John Paul II 30 years ago his life looked bleak.

“I had no job, no wife and six children,” said MacDonald who’s wife died just 10 days after he lost his job at RCA in 1982. “It was just devastating. I needed something to get me up and running ... so I volunteered to help at the Martyr’s Shrine because the Pope was coming in 1984.”

After a few meetings with the other volunteers, MacDonald’s phone rang. The familiar voice of Fr. James Farrell, director of Martyr’s Shrine, greeted MacDonald and invited him to become the co-ordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit on Sept. 15, 1984.

Thirty years later, MacDonald, now 78, still regards it as “the greatest thing to happen at that particular time for me.”

“You need something to occupy your mind instead of just sitting in the house saying poor me. (At first) I was in a terrible mood. I felt like I was the only guy in the world that ever lost his wife, until I got out talking to a whole lot of other people.”

Preparation for the Pope’s visit required more than a year of work from dozens of volunteers who looked after everything from security and answering phones, to building a temporary helicopter pad in a neighbouring field, and erecting an altar which still stands today.

A few days shy of the 30th anniversary of his visit, on Sept. 6, MacDonald joined in a Mass celebrated by Toronto Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau from that very altar where John Paul II (now St. John Paul II) said Mass in 1984.

“I had tears in my eyes, absolutely tears in my eyes, thinking of all of the things that happened the day of the event (and) all of the things that happened since as well,” he said. “I have a lot to be thankful for and that all runs through my mind ... standing on that site at the Shrine where we made and put an altar.”

“That is the only altar that was set up for the visit that has remained in Canada,” noted the Shrine’s current director, Fr. Bernard Carroll.

“That is pretty significant in and of itself.”

Prior to the event Carroll said he expected about 1,000 people for the anniversary celebration — a fraction of the more than 350,000 who came in 1984 to be part of the Shrine’s first papal visit.

The canonization of St. John Paul II last April makes him the first non-Jesuit saint to have ever graced the grounds. He followed almost four centuries after Jesuit missionaries St. Jean de Brébeuf, St. Gabriel Lalemant and St. Charles Garnier, all of whom have relics at the Shrine.

MacDonald played no major role in organizing the anniversary celebration, but he brought with him several pieces of memorabilia from the 1984 visit, including a gold chain and pendent the Pope gave him before taking off.

“I’ve never taken that chain and the Pope’s emblem from around my neck,” he said. “For the last 30 years it has been there. I probably will go to my grave with that around my neck. Every time I look at that I think ... I shook hands with a saint. There are not many people that can make that statement.

“It was the greatest thing that I have ever done.” 

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