Tributes paid to a truly missionary priest

Canon John McAllister passed away last week. Much loved in the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh, Archbishop Leo Cushley said he was a ‘priest who always greeted you with a smile, behind which was much courage, experience and determination.’

The courage and experience, Archbishop Cushley noted, was demonstrated through his service ‘in some very difficult, even dangerous, circumstances early in his priesthood and his tenacity and bravery there earned him much respect.’

He was referring to Canon McAllister’s days as a missionary in Nigeria – some which nearly cost him his life.

Born in Leith on 11 January 1932, he attended Blairs Seminary before being received into the priesthood in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1955.

‘Fr Mac’, as he would be known throughout his priesthood, he was one of several priests who volunteered to serve in Africa Archbishop Gordon Gray generously responded to an appeal from Pope Pius XII.

He was 30-years-old when he arrived in the Diocese of Calabar, East Nigeria, in 1961.

He had helped build a church and enjoyed his time ministering to the locals.

Prue Maxwell-Stuart was living in the area in 1966 with her husband, a civil engineer, and their two young children.

She recalled attended Mass at the Catholic mission run by Fr McAllister, who became a close friend and spiritual adviser.

“The area was beautiful, quiet and idyllic,” she said.

That all changed when they heard the news that Fr McNally, the priest in Bauchi, ‘had been forced to sit on his veranda and watch his parishioners being killed.’

“Inevitably, our Mission in Gombe was attacked and burnt down,” she said.

The threat to his life was severe, and the bishop had ordered him to leave immediately.

In a moment of benign and brave disobedience, Fr McAllister refused to go ‘until he had the remainder of his flock safely on trains heading back to the east, paying the fares with his own money.’

“Fr McAllister was ordered to leave by the bishop but refused to go until he had the remainder of his flock safely on trains heading back to the east, paying the fares with his own money.

“Only then did he return to Edinburgh, exhausted and traumatised.”

Fr McAllister’s sister recalled looking out the window of their family home in Edinburgh to see who she thought was a homeless man getting off a tram and proceed towards the house.

“He was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals and had no bag,” she said.

“I called my mum and she was horrified to see it was John. He had to flee for his life.”

Upon his return, he served in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, before being asked to become the founding parish priest of St Paul’s parish in the city’s Muirhouse.

Fr McAllister inherited a inherited a love for Lourdes from his father, who first took him there on pilgrimage when he was 15 years old.

His dedication to the pilgrimage made him an Honorary Chaplain of the Lourdes Sanctuaries. He also served as president of the Association of British Lourdes Pilgrimage Directors.

Bernadette Barry of the Archdiocesan Lourdes Committee said he was ‘fully committed in encouraging young people to experience the joy of helping in Lourdes.’

“He was our counsellor, confidante and friend,” she said.

“Fr Mac exuded joy, from his warm smile and words of encouragement to his loud and infectious laugh.  

“He is a huge loss to the Pilgrimage but he will always be in our hearts.”

After serving multiple parishes and surviving cancer, Fr McAllister retired in Dunfermline.

He died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday 10 December 2022, giving 67 years of his life to the Church as a priest.

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