A Story of Coincidence, Humour and a Realization of Life’s Ups and Downs: Meet Father Doug MacDonald

How a 1999 run-in with Robin Williams still impacts the CBU Chaplain today

If you’ve seen 6’4, 285 pound Doug MacDonald walking around Cape Breton University’s campus, you might have some preconceived notions about what he’s doing here. Maybe he’s the new fitness trainer, or perhaps CBU has added weightlifting as an elective? No, actually, Father Doug MacDonald is our University Chaplain

A chaplain is typically a religious representative who works in a secular institution such as a hospital, business or university. The first recorded instance of a University Chaplain dates back to 1256 AD, when the University of Cambridge hired two chaplains to serve its student body. Father Doug takes his role as University Chaplain to another level, serving not only as a religious representative offering spiritual advice, but as a friendly face in the halls, ready to offer an ear to anyone on campus, regardless of their individual beliefs.

“One of the things I want to do is encounter and engage people,” says Father Doug. “It doesn’t matter to me what religion they are, what matters is that we’re all human beings with the same essential needs.” 

Father Doug has a background unlike many other Catholic Priests. He was born in Antigonish, and grew up watching heavy events and surrounding himself with Scottish culture. Throughout university he participated in football and wrestling, but after graduating with his education degree, he began to focus exclusively on training for the highland games. He first competed in 1994 and fell in love with the sport, knowing he wanted to be a champion someday. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the top Caber Toss athlete in the world. While training and competing, Father Doug was working as a teacher in British Columbia, and his students got a kick out of hearing their teacher’s tales of his experiences at the highland games.

Although he enjoyed his role as an educator, Father Doug felt himself being called to the seminary. “I was already teaching at a Catholic school and the Priesthood was something I had been thinking about for a long time,” he explains. In 2002, he officially enrolled, spending the next six years at the Ontario Seminary, followed by placements in New Waterford, Margaree, Isle Madame and a year of study in Rome. “I was certainly the only Priest who could bench press 300 pounds,” laughs Father Doug. After returning from Rome, he was given his current assignment, serving the community of North Sydney as well as the CBU campus. 

Recently a photo of Father Doug began circulating on Facebook. It shows him at the 1999 Lonach Highland Games in Scotland, standing tall in his kilt, holding on his shoulder none other than comedian and actor, Robin Williams. Pretty good Throwback Thursday content don’t you think? But to Father Doug, it’s much more than a fleeting moment captured on a disposable camera in 1999; the story behind the photo is one of coincidences, humour, and a realization of life’s ups and downs. 

Leading up to the photo, Father Doug had been in Scotland all summer, touring from games to games. He rented a car, lived in bed and breakfasts and practiced alongside Scotland’s best athletes. The Lonach Highland Games took place in late August, as Father Doug was nearing the end of his journey. 

“What I didn’t know was that Robin Williams attended the games on a regular basis to run what’s called the hill race,” says Father Doug. “He would go on vacation with Scottish comedian Billy Connoly and Steve Martin, and take part in the run up the local mountain.” 

Before Robin took to the starting line, he decided to head over to the heavy event athletes and ask questions about the various equipment and techniques. Making fun of himself in the way only Robin could, he played to the audience of onlookers, struggling to lift some of the gear. Thinking quickly, Father Doug tossed his disposable camera to one of the other athletes, snuck up behind Robin and hoisted him up onto his shoulder. 

“At first, he tried to squirm down. But you see, there were two problems with that,” says Father Doug. “One, I was in pretty good shape back then and I wasn’t letting him down. And two, we had just finished throwing the hammer and my hands were covered in sticky tacky.” 

Laughing at the memory, Father Doug explains that after Robin laughed and waved to the audience and it really was time to put him down, Robin’s legs were stuck. Father Doug had to rip his hands from Robin’s skin, inadvertently taking half of his leg hair off in the process. The men exchanged laughs and parted ways, and Father Doug thought that was the end of it. A good story to tell his students when he got back to British Columbia and a photo to hang on to for years to come. 

But a few years later, one of Father Doug’s students brought up the memory, explaining that his father, a stuntman, would be working on set with Robin for the next few months. He offered to take a copy of Father Doug’s photo and get it signed for him. “Douglas, you da man in the skirt – Robin Williams,” is now scrawled across the memento in black sharpie. 

“People may be wondering how this story ties into my role here at CBU,” says Father Doug. “Well, it all comes back to the importance of kindness in the role of Chaplain and in all of our lives. Robin Williams was a man who was so happy on the outside, but inside he was having tremendous struggles. My experience with him was a real lesson; he was sitting on my shoulders laughing and having fun, and all of his movies were light-hearted and lovable, but we had no idea what he was going through.” 

Father Doug says this story serves as a reminder of why we should be kind to people no matter what their background is, saying we never know what someone is going through inside. 

“As a chaplain, I’m here to give people hope. That’s what we need in life,” says Father Doug. “I’m not trying to convert or proselytize people; I’m just here to accompany them on their own journey to find things out for themselves. I want all of the students, faculty and staff to know that I’m here for them in any way that I can help. I would be honoured to do so.”

The CBU Chaplaincy is open Monday-Friday and is located in CC-135. Individual meetings with Father Doug or any of the additional Chaplaincy representatives can be arranged by email. Please contact doug_macdonald@cbu.ca or stop by the Chaplaincy for more information.