December 15: Robert McDonald, Priest, 1913

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


About this commemoration

Robert McDonald was a priest, missionary, and archdeacon, who served among the First Nations peoples of Canada.

McDonald was born in 1829 in Point Douglas, Manitoba. He attended local schools, worked alongside his father on the family farm,and married Julia Kuttag with whom he had nine children.

Although McDonald showed initial reluctance, he responded to the church’s call to mission service among the native peoples of Canada. He was ordained a priest in 1853 and took charge of the Islington Mission on the Winnipeg River. It was there that he discovered his gift for languages and it was there that he became fluent in the language of the Ojibway Tribe and began to translate the Bible.

In 1862, the Church Missionary Society persuaded McDonald to establish a new mission at Fort Yukon. It was here, as later at Fort McPherson, where McDonald made his enduring contribution to the tribes of the Tinjiyzoo Nation. He developed a written alphabet for the Tukudh language so that the people could read the texts of the Christian tradition. He also published a grammar and dictionary in Tukudh, both of which remain standard reference works. Over the next forty years, working together with his wife, Julia, and other translators, he accomplished the translation of the whole of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, a hymnal and other texts. Possessing these commons texts was critical not only to the Christian mission, but also had a unifying impact on the common life of the various tribes in the region.

McDonald retired from the Church Missionary Society in 1904 and lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, until his death in 1913. He is buried in the cemetery of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral.


I God of ice, sea and sky, who didst call thy servant Robert McDonald, making him strong to endure all hardships for the sake of serving thee in the Arctic: Send us forth as laborers into thy harvest, that by patience in our duties and compassion in our dealings, many may be gathered to thy kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II God of ice, sea and sky, you called your servant Robert McDonald and made him strong to endure all hardships for the sake of serving you in the Arctic: Send us forth as laborers into your harvest, that by patience in our duties and compassion in our dealings, many may be gathered to your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 66:18–23

1 Thessalonians 1:2–8

Luke 9:1–6



Preface of a Saint (3)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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9 thoughts on “December 15: Robert McDonald, Priest, 1913

  1. Why in his collect is there no mention of Robert McDonald’s gift for languages/tongues & his use of these gifts to God’s glory & the strengthening of native peoples’ faith &/or the unity of various native peoples? It is my great hope that as we hold up various holy women & men we do so by NOT using generic prayers, those in which all that is needed is to change the name of the holy-person-of-the-day: “Dear God, we name before you this day NN & thank you for NN’s life & example,” followed by the usual closing. Amen.
    The Collect, like the Sonnet, has a set form within which all sorts of wonderfully creative possibilities exist.
    Let us not diminish the persons honored, nor the richness of our language as we honor them.

  2. Collect: ‘in our dealings ..’ Dealings is not a good word for the collect. Interactions? In daily life? Something better than ‘dealings’ must be possible.

    Readings: They are of good length and seem to fit well.

    Bio. 5th paragraph: ‘He is buried in the cemetery of Saint John’s Anglican Cathedral.’ In Winnipeg? Some other place with a St. John’s Anglican Cathedral?

  3. We celebrated this commemoration last night at our regular Wednesday Eucharist at St Anne’s, Warsaw, IN. There was a consensus among those attending that Robert McDonald’s life and witness were exemplary and heroic, and presumptively rise to the level of sanctity that one expects in a person who “inhabits” that calendar. Some information about any already-existing cult would be helpful in this discernment. All that said, his proposed inclusion once again raises the question of when a holy woman/holy man in one province of the Church is appropriately commemorated by others. How, precisely, does the arc bend from the local toward the universal? Is a commemoration that is probably unquestionably appropriate for a Canadian church necessarily appropriate for an American one? Are there consistent criteria for making these sorts of decisions?

    I agree that the collect needs some work. I agree with Sarah Lewis (above) that collects should not be simply generic. But neither should they be either pedagogical or hortatory. This one probably tries to accomplish too much. To have “ice and snow” and “harvest” in the same prayer is jarring. Perhaps both images could be laid aside in favor of an emphasis on McDonald’s mastery of native languages. If that is done, then maybe the second reading should be from Acts (descent of the Holy Spirit … various languages heard).

  4. Fr. Martins raises an interesting question, one that’s been asked before on this blog: to what extent should
    “holy women and holy men” be commemorated in provinces where they did not worship, pray, and witness? I’m assuming the question is referring to the post-Reformation era, because I think that at least before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church commemorated saints from several parts of the continents of Europe and Asia, although they may not have included people in the Orthodox calendar. In other words, the oldest tradition of commemoration crosses geographical and political boundaries: Christian saints are commemorated, wherever they lived. Please correct me if I’m wrong–this is only an assumption. If that is true, it seems more in keeping with tradition to continue the border crossing. Personally, I think the stories of non-TEC saints and TEC saints are all interesting and edifying. They all show us how the Christian witness has been done, and broaden our sense of space and time as related to those who follow Christ.

  5. I’m not opposed in concept to “border crossing” (as Celinda defines it). It’s a matter of having reasonably consistent criteria for doing so. Even in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, as I understand it, there are some saints who are commemorated universally and some who appear on the calendars only of regional churches. To take the case at hand, is Robert McDonald’s witness worthy of commemoration in the Anglican Church of Canada? Undoubtedly yes. Would the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Japanese Anglicans) want him in their calendar? Probably not. How about TEC? That’s a tougher call. I don’t have the answer, but the larger question is worthy of continued discussion.

  6. i didn’t know that the contemporary RC Church had some saints who were commemorated only regionally–that’s interesting and very relevant. About Nippon Sei Ko Kai–their primate studied theology in the US and was ordained here (I met him at the 2006 General Convention). His first cousin is a neighbor of mine; her father was an Anglican priest in Japan. Stories like that make us all seem closer together. –You mention consistent criteria. As a member of TEC, I was very interested in the Canadian saints (more than one, I think) who have been recommended. I’ve thought the various nationalities of the proposed saints enhanced our calendar. It has surprised me when some questioned their inclusion on those grounds. –But, as you say, we don’t know about churches in the rest of the Anglican communion and whether they have that interest, or what the “consistent criteria” for inclusion might be. Perhaps some of the rather “liberal” American theologians who have been proposed for the TEC calendar would make no sense to some of the churches in Africa.

  7. It is not clear why Robert McDonald and John Horden are not coupled in one commemoration.

    The subtitle should be amended to read “priest and missionary in Canada”. Both Horden and McDonald were contemporaries, linguists, and worked for the Church Missionary Society in Canada. I recommend that their commemorations be coupled.

    If his actual date of birth can be traced, it should be used: I could not find it. Nor could I find the date of his death

    Line 2, first paragraph: I’m not convinced that all users will be familiar with Canada’s excellent use of “First Nations”–IMO, much better than “Native Americans”–literally, anyone born in America. I suggest adding “(indigenous)” after “Nations”.

    Line 2, fifth paragraph: we should have the full date of his death, but I have been unable to find it.

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