The response was instant and firm when Donald Butler’s high school teacher inquired what the student’s career goal was.
“I told him I wanted to be a priest and he seemed to be very surprised,” recalled the Antigua Grammar School graduate who marked his 25th anniversary as an ordained priest with a celebratory event last Saturday at The Church of the Nativity in Scarborough. “We were a bit of a loud class, so to hear one of us talk about wanting to do something with the church absolutely stunned my teacher and I could tell from his reaction.”
Butler was very clear about the road he wanted to travel, having grown up in a religious family in the Caribbean.
“I was in the youth ministry, I sang in the choir and was a Sunday school teacher at St. Paul’s where I was raised,” he said. “As I was about to finish high school, I talked to John Cole who was the priest in my parish and told him what I wanted to do.”
With Cole’s blessings, Butler enrolled in Codrington College, an Anglican theological institution in Barbados. Graduating four years later, he returned to Antigua and was ordained a deacon in 1984. He was posted to Belize where he was elevated to the position of priest a year later.
“That was a big moment for me as many family members came from Antigua to Belize to celebrate the occasion,” he said. “As part of the ceremony, clergy members put their hands on your head and shoulders as the blessings are said. I was not prepared for that and there was tremendous pressure on my knees from the weight of their hands on me. I took the burden in stride as I saw that as the weight of the ministry to which I was called.”
Returning to Antigua in 1986, Butler served as senior priest at St. John’s Cathedral before migrating to Canada with his wife of two years and their newborn in 1988.
Coming with excellent recommendations did not translate into an immediate job and it took him about a year before he landed a position with the Diocese of Toronto. Butler spent two years at St. James Cathedral before being transferred to The Church of the Epiphany and later Malvern Presbyterian Church where the membership was close to 50.
“That was very small because I came from a church in Antigua where the congregation was about 400,” Butler said. “I was prepared for that, having being apprised that attendance was dwindling. What I was not prepared for was the racism that I encountered. There were White members who openly expressed their disapproval with me as a Black priest. But what stung me the most was when I heard a Black person protest to me being there because of my skin colour. On the other hand, the Black presence increased when word got around that I was there, so I was invigorated and determined to succeed.
“I printed bulletins and stood at the corner of Neilson Rd. and McLevin Ave., handing out flyers and doing as much outreach as possible. By 1995, attendance had increased to about 120 and we were running out of space because that was a small church.”
Parishioner Brian Chandler came up with the idea of erecting a new church on vacant land close to the Malvern Presbyterian Church. The membership and Butler agreed and the groundbreaking ceremony took place in November 2000 for The Church of the Nativity which was officially unveiled in March 2002.
The construction cost was $3 million and $1.2 million is still outstanding on the mortgage.
“We have come a far way,” said Butler. “I think one of the things that I am most proud of is that we are a vital part of the Malvern community. We have been running a summer camp for 15 years, we have programs for seniors, we have a dance group for our young people and we have our steel and woodwind bands.”
In addition, the church has provided nearly $70,000 in bursaries in the last 15 years.
“I have enjoyed my stint here tremendously,” Butler added. “These have been the best years of my life because the congregation and myself know and understand each other. You also have to remember that this is the place I have spent the most time, so it holds a special place in my heart. Who I am has been shaped by the ministry here and the ministry has been shaped by my leadership.”
Last November, Butler was appointed to the province’s Child & Family Services Review Board.