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September 14, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 23

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photo:  Father Alistair McKay

Father Alistair McKay

Priest felt culture shock on return from missions

F ather Alistair McKay, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem, recently celebrated his 40th anniversary as a priest.

Of those 40 years, 21 were spent in South Africa, where he ministered to villagers amid political unrest throughout the region.

Father McKay’s first assignment after being ordained in 1975 was in Rhodesia. He arrived in the middle of a war.

“The Catholic Church was strongly on the side of the black people against the white government,” he said, adding that he served the black community in the village of Tafara, meaning “We are happy,” located on the edge of the capital.

In 1979, the priest, who was born in Scotland, was transferred to the Botswana border. He spent 18 years in Rustenburg, travelling among several villages.

In the village of Modimong, which means “The Place of God” he joined two other priests who were already serving there — Father Conroy and Father Neeson. In 1980, Father Conroy, the oldest at age 70, was brutally murdered.

Then, in 1985, Father Neeson died suddenly at the age of 53. Father McKay was left alone for a time, serving 32 mission stations throughout the area.

Waving away the comment that it must have been difficult to be the only priest serving such a large community, Fr. McKay humbly said, “It was fine, I was young.”

In the midst of all the political upheaval and violence going on around him, Father McKay focused on the missionary work that is at the center of life as a Redemptorist priest, helping to build schools and hospitals.

“I performed a lot of baptisms, brought people into the Church," he said. "That’s what we were there for.”

To say that Father McKay lived simply is an understatement. His home was a “rondavel,” a round hut with a thatched roof and no electricity. He slept on a dirt floor. Water was gathered from a well in the village.

He remembers his amazement at seeing the village women dressed in their finery on Sunday mornings.

“They were beautiful," he said. "Their dresses were pure white, with no dirt or creases. I wondered, “How do they do it?”

"I learned that they stored their garments under their bedding during the week (so that the weight of their bodies would press out any wrinkles while they slept).”

As part of the Redemptorist order, Father McKay was permitted to go home for a six-week period once every three years.

With such long stretches of time devoted to mission work, he needed an opportunity for fellowship with other priests. Mondays became a day to gather in Rustenburg with area clergy to pray and unwind.

“Those get-togethers helped me the most. Every Monday would be a day of recollection until 5:00 p.m. Then we would share a meal and relax.”

Father McKay has much to be proud of during his time in Africa.

“My greatest triumph is that I baptized 400 men in one day,” he said, quickly pointing out that his predecessors had spent several years in preparation with these men. Most were miners and had to travel out of the village, located near Rhodesia, for work, so the process was a lengthy one.

In 1995, after 20 years in Africa, he was ready for a change. Father McKay was placed in the Southeastern United States in 1996, serving initially in Sumter, SC at St. Anne and St. Jude parishes.

He experienced a bit of culture shock when he arrived in the U.S. At St. Anne’s the congregation held a welcome reception after his first Mass. When the party was over, he helped with the cleanup.

“What are you doing, Father?” asked one of the parishioners.

“I’m cleaning the dishes,” he answered.

“Father, we throw those away.”

“I was confused,” he recalled. The dishes were disposable, but “in Africa, we didn’t throw anything away. We were constantly begging for money from overseas. We made use of everything.”

Father McKay also noticed differences in the priesthood in the U.S. as compared to Africa.

“Here (in the United States), people come to the priest. In Africa, the priest goes to the people.”

In the African villages, when delivering Communion to the sick, the community would follow along behind the priest, carrying the cross and singing.

After nine years in South Carolina, Father McKay moved to St. Joseph’s in Hampton, where he served from 2005 to 2008. Then it was on to St. Vincent DePaul in Newport News until 2011.

After a year in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, serving at Sacred Heart parish, Father McKay moved back to Virginia, serving at St. John’s in Highland Springs until 2014.

Finally, he moved to Salem, where he was named pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on July 1, 2014.

Nine of the last 10 years of Father McKay’s priesthood have been spent within the Richmond Diocese.

“I’ve enjoyed my time, made great friends,” he says, adding, “When you have a sense of sharing one’s priesthood with other very good men, it makes things so much better.”

“To be a priest,” he reflected, “I don’t think there can be any greater calling in the world. I have led a very blessed life and a very privileged life.”

While certainly humble and soft-spoken, Father McKay also possesses a sharp wit and a ready laugh, and he tells a great story. One yarn he likes to spin for school children is the tale of how he stood 6’4” before he went to Africa, where he met a snake at a crossroads that bit him in half.

It is obvious that Father McKay is well-loved by his parishioners, past and present. His jubilee party, held at the Roanoke Country Club, drew over 250 people.

“They came from South Carolina, Hampton, Newport News, and Richmond," he said. "It was brilliantly organized and I’m so grateful for that.”

“I’m so happy to have celebrated it,” he went on to say, “but I’m very aware how humble I am to be honored by so many people because I am a priest, and I have to live up to that calling.”

Father McKay lives up to his calling with joy, warmth, humor, and dedication.

“In the last few years I have grown into the priesthood,” he explains. “I’m very aware of it now — the call to holiness.”

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