Bernard Francis MacDonell

July 23, 1929December 18, 2018
Play Tribute Video Play Tribute Video

Bernard Francis MacDonell (Garaidhnach) died on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, at the QE II Hospital in Halifax surrounded by his family. Eldest son of the late Archibald S. and Mary Fitzgerald MacDonell, he was born on July 23, 1929, and raised on the family farm at Judique Intervale, Inverness Co., Cape Breton. He is survived by his loving wife, Theresa Margaret MacDonell (nee Meagher); Sr. Ellen MacDonell, OSF, his sister; his two brothers, Leo A. (Yvonne Bourgeois MacDonell) and John Lester, and was pre-deceased by his youngest brother, Laughlin (Karen Lawson MacDonell). He is also survived by his six children: Bernard, Mary (John Skaife), Helen (Tom Ward), Margaret (John Edmonds), Gerard (Abbey Nayor MacDonell), and Joe (Christina Jahncke) who will dearly miss him. He is also survived by his five grandchildren who made him very proud: Sarah, Emma, Colin, Ruah, and Harrison.

While his mother was that rare specimen of a 1920s school teacher who possessed a university degree, and his father a farmer with a scientific bent for breeding prize animals, Bernie resisted school work in later adolescence in favour of the allure of trucks, and motor power more widely. Whatever early dreams he may have had of becoming a trucker were short-lived, however, for, at 19, on his first commercial trek from Judique to Halifax, he lost his entire load of Christmas trees to thieves on his first night in the capital-- a rude introduction to the ways of the wider world! But despite this early set-back, Bernie stayed on in Halifax for two years with his cousin, Don Beaton, and made his break from the farm to city life.

While Bernie didn't want to be a farmer he always said that his early years in Cape Breton were among his happiest and the summer houses he established at Judique Intervale through his brothers, Leo A. and John Lester, have been a central part of his family's life for more than fifty years. So travelling back-and-forth between Halifax and Judique has been a lifelong motif for much of the family.

On an early such journey, at 22, Bernie made the biggest strike of his life when he encountered the beautiful Theresa Meagher of Mulgrave. They met at a church picnic in Judique that Theresa was attending with her parents and, true to style, Bernie's first approach concluded with an offer to drive her home. When Theresa relayed this request to her father, Mr. Maurice Meagher pointed to the family auto and said, “When that car leaves, you'll be in it.” But Theresa's mother prevailed upon her husband; Bernie and Theresa got their wish; and four years later they were married. To the end it was clear how lucky he felt himself to be to have won her.

While Theresa taught school in Dover, Mulgrave, Sheet Harbour and finally Dartmouth, Bernie worked as a sheet metal worker and later an electrician in Halifax building up his resources to marry and begin a family. One of the reasons he stated for their decision to choose Halifax as their principal residence was their belief that the city would provide better schooling for their children. Apropos of this point, Bernie took pride in the fact that all his six children gained university degrees and satisfying work.

But while the theme of education, so familiar to Scottish families, was a big one with the MacDonells, both in Judique and Halifax, Bernie always retained a certain skepticism regarding systematic thought and was not adverse to a good rant-- more than once, actually-- against the falseness, even the dangers, of “theory”. The family dinner table, especially on Sundays, was alive with political, religious and cultural debate but by the age of 9, his youngest son, Joe, seemed to pick up Bernie's position and mercilessly skewered his older siblings' sophistry with long speeches of gobbledygook he inventively called “Psychodemics”. These satires by young Joe left Bernie, and all of us, bent over and shaking with laughter, they were unspeakably funny, but they also pointed to a deeper theme of distrust of abstraction and, by extension, distrust of the modern flight from nature, tradition and practical wisdom, where Bernie felt fully at home.

“As long as you put in a good day's work, you'll be alright,” he used to say. And work he did. While he made his first dollars snaring rabbits, cutting pit props for the mines and, as mentioned, trucking, he also worked daily on the farm following the agricultural round of cash crops, dairy, beef and sheep production, even including such exotica as raising foxes. The Garaidhnach farm on the Intervale in Judique was a major endeavour going back to 1867, a source of tradition and family pride, but requiring more than a little perseverance. “Sometimes in life you've got to hang in there pretty tough.”

So the psychic, bodily and spiritual value of work for its own sake, and to improve material and family life, were central to his creed. In Halifax, alongside his electrical work for Fairey Aviation and the DND at the airport, and later at the Halifax Shipyards, he bought and maintained properties, both for domestic and income purposes; built a house in Sackville with the enlisted support (read: forced labour) of his children; and worked as a freight handler, alongside Don Beaton initially, on the waterfront.

At the same time, on the family front, he was also busy building rinks in the backyard, organizing guitar and pipe lessons, cheering (growling) at hockey games, attending mass and quietly reciting the refrains to Theresa's studied lead on the rosary. How did she manage to keep all the joyful and sorrowful mysteries straight anyways? That mystery is itself worth half a decade surely.

Seen in this context it is easy to see why Bernie did not relish his years of retirement as much as his working life. In fact he said that if he had one regret in life it was that he retired too early. His later years were difficult, too, in that he could not make sense of the apparent turning away from tradition in religious and family life and queried anyone who would engage with him as to where we stood as a culture regarding these and related ethical and political matters. Indeed, where do we stand?

It was hard to miss Bernie's deepening spiritual life in these later years. He drew great meaning and satisfaction from his work as a Eucharistic Minister at the Veterans' Hospital and enjoyed being with his fellow Knights of Columbus. But these spiritual inclinations, which led him to be a little less combative than earlier on, “we shouldn't be bickering,” were only part of his wide curiosity and questing spirit that led him down many diverse avenues.

In his late sixties, for example, he went to Mexico and Belize to visit his daughters, Helen and Margaret, and on his return home took a bus from the Yucatan up to Los Angeles, thence onwards to Montreal and Halifax. I remember waiting to pick him up at one of the Metro stations in downtown Montreal expecting to find him dragging himself from the train after the ordeal he had put himself through. Instead I found him smiling and more relaxed than I had seen him at few points in his life: Would that he had allowed himself more such adventures and novelty.

His end came far more quickly than we were able to manage, try though we did. But he was so resilient, and had come through so many medical scrapes, that we weren’t sure what it would take to finally stop him. In July this year, at 89, he was taken to hospital one morning due to a heart attack. By midnight the same day he managed to detach his IV, find his clothes, and escape from the hospital. An APB was put out on him by the Halifax Police and all the cruisers on the peninsula were looking for him. When he arrived home at Summit St., on foot, at 1 am, five cruisers with lights flashing soon descended upon him, one of which escorted him back to confinement at the QEII. The surmise of the neighbours that evening has yet to be recorded but the lights were on all around us.

During his final hospitalization after a fall and a fractured hip he vouched one evening in the rare quiet of his ward that “When I was younger I used to go after things; now I wait for things to come to me. But when they come, you have to be ready.” St. Augustine, as it happens, took much the same view on the relation between our strivings (free will) and divine grace but his sources in part of course were dangerously theoretical. Bernie's sources, by contrast, were the land, labour, family life and the soundings of his own heart as a husband and father. Due to all we shared, loved and suffered together with him in the family, especially at the end, it’s clear to us whose account of will and grace resonates most powerfully.

The funeral will be held at 11 am, Saturday, Dec. 22 at St. Theresa’s Church, North St., Halifax. Reception to follow in the parish hall.

In lieu of flowers, please make a contribution to the QEII Health Centre or a charity of your choice. We would like to publicly thank the doctors, nurses and staff of ward 8.1 of the QEII for their great dedication and professionalism in caring for our father.

Well done, truly. Deo Gratias.


  • Funeral Service Saturday, December 22, 2018

Bernard Francis MacDonell

have a memory or condolence to add?

Catherine Luke

December 22, 2018

Dear Bernard, Mary, Helen, Margaret, Gerard, and Joe:
Please accept my sympathy at this most sad, important, and difficult passage. love, Catherine

Paul MacDonell

December 22, 2018

First of all, on behalf of Francis, Sylvia and myself I wish to extend our condolences to you all.
This morning I bought a couple of coffees and went to the sawmill where Francis is working and we shared some stories of our experiences with Bernie. We both agreed that he had a great sense of humour when he put in the effort to be funny. Francis and I had a number of laughs while reminiscing about your father. Hopefully some day we can share more of our memories of Bernie with you.
This one memorable event involving your father stood out for both Francis and I. We were both in Cape Breton for a visit. I had rented a car and was going to return it to Halifax airport. Bernie was at the school house and stopped by Mom and Dads. We talked a bit and then he asked when we were heading back to Alberta. I told him and he then asked if he could come with us as he needed to get back to Halifax and he could get someone to. Of cours I said yes but I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant. Many of my conversations with Bernie were of him asking a question and then me trying to answer said question only to be interrupted with another question and so on and so forth until Bernie seemed frustrated then the subject changed. So the day came to leave for airport. I drove, Francis was in the front and your father sat in the back. Well it was the most pleasant experience I’ve had with Bernie. Francis agreed. We spoke of life, things we had done, decisions we made (good and bad) and throughout the whole car ride Bernie just listened. He would offer up some fatherly advice but never judged us. I know Francis and I walked away from that car ride with a much greater appreciation of your father and I think Bernie felt much like we did that day as he did make mention of that trip to Leo and Yvonne when he returned to the Intervale days later. It was truly a wonderful experience and I just wanted to share that with you people.
We have you in our hearts and in our thoughts.