Fr. Joe MacDonald has spent more than 50 years as a priest, most of those years caring for ex-psychiatric patients. Photo by Michael Swan

The poverello of Toronto: Fr. Joe MacDonald ministered to the mentally ill

  • July 30, 2018

During his life, St. Francis of Assisi was known as the "poverello,” or the poor man who renounced the world to live for Jesus alone.

When Fr. Joseph MacDonald chose a name for his life's ministry, he wasn't just paying tribute to a great saint. He also chose to embrace a humble vocation that truly honoured the Franciscan way. 

"(St. Francis) moved from serving the lepers to also living among them and Joe (MacDonald) had a very similar experience in this regard," said retired Bishop John Corriveau. "He was a very simple man. He lived with people he served."

Capuchin Franciscan friar MacDonald died on July 10 at 85 years old after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. A funeral Mass was celebrated on July 17 at St. Philip Neri Church in Toronto. 

He dedicated his life to providing community housing for people in Toronto who were suffering from chronic mental illness. He founded Poverello Charities in 1969, work that led to him being awarded the Order of Ontario in 2012.

Corriveau, retired bishop of Nelson, B.C., and former minister general of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, went to minor seminary with Fr. MacDonald in 1958. They were also ordained together by Toronto Bishop Francis Marrocco on Oct. 23, 1965. 

Corrieveau remembered Fr. MacDonald as a very passionate and caring man. 

"Joe always had a special passion for the underdog," he said. "He always fought for the ones who were left out and that, of course, carried on toward the expression of his ministry."

About 60 years ago, people with serious mental illness were housed in psychiatric hospitals across Ontario. But as deinstitutionalization began in 1964, many who suffered with illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental health issues became homeless. 

Fr. MacDonald believed that a loving community is the most healing factor in people's lives and so in 1969, he left his ministry teaching high school students at Mount Alverno minor seminary to found Poverello Charities in downtown Toronto. There, he lived with people with mental health issues and encouraged them to take ownership of their own lives by living and volunteering within the community. 

"What he founded was a community and he was adamant about that," said Stephen Sobol, who took over as director of Poverello Charities in 2016. "The fraternal aspect of community is very, very healing for people... That gives them a sense of hope, that they are important and are loved unconditionally by God."

Sobol said that even when Fr. MacDonald stepped away from active ministry two years ago to focus on his health, he continued to be a presence. He always wanted to know about the day-to-day events of the community. Even in his suffering, Sobol said he was always first to ask the other person how they are doing. 

"If anything, he would just want to be remembered as someone who tried his best to live out the Gospel idea in the footsteps of St. Francis," said Sobol. "He told me many times that the only hope for humankind was the Franciscan way. He was called to live the way of St. Francis and that's what he did."

Fr. MacDonald was born to Margaret Hawkin and Joseph MacDonald on June 1, 1933 in Alexandria, Ont. He was named Alastair Duncan Timothy Joseph MacDonald but took the religious name, Joseph of Greenfield when he entered the novitiate with the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in 1959.

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