Mary Frances McDonald was born to Dan Jim (Bahn) MacDonald and Catherine MacGillis of St. Raphael’s, Ontario, Canada on January 9th 1905. She was the baby in a family of nine having five brothers; Angus, Philip, James, Roderick & John, and three sisters; Catherine, Florrie Ann (Sister Mary St. Donald) and Ida.
Mary Frances was a happy child full of spirit and music. The family treasured the littlest sister and entertained her well especially her brother John Angus, a talented fiddler, who played the violin for her as she danced and clapped her hands.
Her love of piano expressed itself early in her life when as a wee lass she would “play tunes” on the windowsills of her home since no instrument was available to her. Seeing this, her loving older brothers Angus and John went about obtaining her a piano…and the rest is history!!
Schooling took place for the young girl first in Munroes Mills and then in Iona Academy. Mary Frances made her mark on the place by being the first ever student to board at the school. She loved Iona since being there meant she was able to at last take the music lessons which she’d always wanted. It didn’t take long for her to excel in the subject and she soon was playing classical piano and Celtic music by note and by ear.
Mary Frances accompanied many local players along with her brother as she grew up and she participated in musical recitals and contests where she took many honors and trophies. As she grew a little older, Mary Frances was bitten by the travel bug and moved to New York where she worked as a secretary at the Irwin Maternity Hospital for several years. She and her friends often took in Radio City and Broadway shows and she would bring the tunes home to play and enjoy.
Returning to Glengarry on visit one fine holiday, Mary Frances met the love of her life, Donald Edward MacPhee. He was an educated man and a beautiful dancer to boot and together they cut a fine figure at the local ceilidhs. They were married on September 2nd 1933 at St. Raphael’s Church by a cousin of the groom, the newly ordained priest, Reverend Donald Kerr and were the first couple he married in his role as parish priest.
For a few years the couple lived in Munroes Mills not far from Frances’ original home, and their first two children, Marion and John James, were born there. But then duty called them to Alexandria to help out Donald Edward’s father on his farm and so the small family made the move to the present day locality of the MacPhee’s at The Bridge home.
There the rest of the family was born; Donald Joseph, Catherine Olive, Madeline and Lucy. As this family began to mature, Mary Frances and Donald Edward became foster parents to four young brothers who had need of a home and found one forever in their generous spirits.
The MacPhees were part of the parish of St Finnan’s in Alexandria where Rev. John McPhail—a wonderful violinist and good friend of the family- resided for 13 years as pastor. He also loved the Celtic arts.
Many concerts and plays were promoted during his time in Alexandria. Artists of every venue would be brought in from Cape Breton, Michigan, Toronto and Ottawa as well as local talent, to perform in the parish hall celebrating the Celtic holidays and feasts. Practices were held at the MacPhee home where Mary Frances accompanied the different players while her family enjoyed the music and were steeped in Celtic tradition first-hand.
Mary Frances had a life-long and enduring commitment to music, Celtic in particular, and as a result, she was a favored accompanist of fiddlers and vocalists in the area and further field. She encouraged young folk, family and friends alike, to try their hand at music in her home where all were welcome and where many impromptu concerts were held. But most importantly, she had a passion for music in all its forms and she spread that love far and wide.
Today the legacy she began as a “wee lass” lives on in all of her family; her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and many present day artists whom she encouraged to pursue their musical talents. We thank her for her gift.