The Rev. Cathy McDonald was a good listener, especially to those living on the fringes of society.
As the fifth woman in Minnesota to be ordained an Episcopal priest, according to her family, McDonald dedicated much of her adult life to helping people as a chaplain. She spent much of her career ministering to women at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.
"She always cared about the person who was struggling and would always do what she could to help them, or at least listen," said her longtime friend, the Rev. Judy Hoover. "Very often you can't change somebody's situation, but you can listen to what their struggle is."
McDonald, of Maple Grove, died of cancer April 18. She was 82.
McDonald had a soft spot for people who struggled to fit in, friends said. Growing up on a South Dakota farm, she contracted polio as a child and had to wear a leg brace for the rest of her life. She also struggled to fit in during high school.
But she learned to persevere. She earned a degree in education at what is now Northern State University. There, after being cast to portray the wife of another student in a one-act play, love blossomed in real life. She married John McDonald in 1961.
The couple moved to Wyoming and Boston and the Twin Cities to follow his teaching career and had two children along the way. While raising them, Cathy enrolled in United Theological Seminary in New Brighton.
The Episcopal Church was just starting to allow women to become priests at the time, and Cathy was ordained in 1978. She then sought chaplain jobs, but not many institutions were interested in hiring a woman, her husband recalled recently.
"I think the refusal of the applications came in faster than anything else," he said. "Things just weren't coming to fruition."
In fall 1980, she accepted an offer from what was then called the Fergus Falls State Hospital, and the family moved north. There, McDonald ministered to people struggling with chemical dependency, disabilities and mental illnesses.
Nine years later, she was drawn back to the Twin Cities metro area for the chaplain job in Shakopee, where she worked with female inmates until 2003. She facilitated three-day weekend Christian events that brought in speakers. John helped with the weekends and they referred to the inmates simply as "insiders."
"We got to see insiders as people," he said. "They touched our lives and I know we touched theirs."
Bubbly and outgoing, Cathy was often the one who made things happen, said the Rev. Jim Tonneson, former head chaplain in Fergus Falls. She did not hesitate to call out injustices and was quick to jump in when something needed to be done, he and others said.
"She was not condescending in any manner of speaking," Tonneson said. "A very open and a caring person."
Even after she retired from the women's prison, she worked part-time as a chaplain and as a priest on a fill-in basis. She also volunteered as a "listener" through City House, a nonprofit that partners with programs to listen to people feeling unseen and unheard. She advocated for racial justice issues.
Besides her husband of 59 years, McDonald is survived by son Richard McDonald and daughter Nancy Jenkins as well as five grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her parents and a grandchild. A small service has been held. A celebration of life at the Church of the Epiphany in Plymouth will be scheduled later.
Pam Louwagie 612-673-7102