"Big Four" Highlights


Heroic Family

When suffering struck, Steven McDonald and his wife stayed strong

Twenty-seven years ago, while working as a police officer in Central Park, Steven McDonald was shot several times and paralyzed from the neck down. At the time, Steven and Patti Ann were married only eight months; Patti Ann was 24 years old and three months pregnant. For months Steven struggled to live, each day Mass was offered at his bedside and his family and friends surrounded him in prayer. Steven and Patti Ann spent their first wedding anniversary in the hospital. Though he was still unable to speak, Patti Ann read his lips as they renewed their wedding vows: their commitment to one another and to God.

Cardinal John O’Connor of New York became a close friend of the McDonalds. He described them in this way: “They are ordinary New Yorkers ... But they are extraordinary too, imbued with the spirit of forgiveness, faith and fidelity to each other beyond earthly measure... their conscious effort to conquer death and hatred with the spirit of life and love ennobles them.”

In this 2004 photo, Police Officer Steven McDonald is shown with his wife, Patti Ann, and their son, Conor, who has since joined the New York Police Department.

In this 2004 photo, Police Officer Steven McDonald is shown with his wife, Patti Ann, and their son, Conor, who has since joined the New York Police Department.
CNS photo from Reuters

Their son, Conor, born six months after Steven was shot, was baptized by Cardinal O’Connor in the hospital chapel, filled with family and friends. After Mass, the media was eager to hear from Steven, who was still unable to speak. Patti Ann read a statement that left everyone in the chapel stunned. She thanked everyone for their love and support through a tremendously difficult struggle. Through tears Patti Ann read Steven’s words: “I thank the people of New York for making me a part of their family and for helping me more than I ever could have helped them as much as I tried. I forgive [the young man who shot me] and I hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life. I ask that you remember the less fortunate than I am who struggle for the dignity of life, without the attention and without the helping hands that have given me this life. God bless you all.”

The impact of Steven’s words of forgiveness will ring out into eternity. Over the years, the McDonalds have spoken to thousands, sharing the power of forgiveness and faith in Jesus. In 2009, following in his father’s footsteps, Conor chose to join the New York City Police Department with the dream of helping people and serving society.

Upon meeting Steven and Patti Ann, you are moved by the strength of their fidelity to each other. It makes you want to be a better person because you see in them what you always dreamed possible – a noble love capable of enduring the crucible of suffering. Called through circumstances beyond their control, they have met the challenges of life together, strengthened by their faith and their love and commitment to each other. Their fidelity is not an old, musty virtue; it shines sterling and beckons you higher.

Patty Ann never thought to go back on her yes. She chose not to consider the options the world held out to her. She knew what authentic love demanded, and embraced it, and in turn has gained the prize of a beautiful life with no regrets. We had the privilege of interviewing the McDonalds at their home in Long Island.

Tell us about your experience of being hospitalized for such a long time.

Steven: It was an intense spiritual experience. My hospital room turned into a chapel. There were Masses offered for me daily and family surrounded me praying the rosary. Jesus was with us in that hospital room. I have come to believe that in life there are no such things as coincidences only “God-incidents.” Blessed John Paul II said, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” I believe in Jesus because I was raised to; but I know him because I experienced God in action in those days. God used so many people as his instruments. Always, Patti Ann was there with her loving support.

How did you come to a point where you could forgive the one who shot you?

Steven: Cardinal O’Connor encouraged me to open my heart to the grace that was there to forgive. I know that forgiveness is something you have to work for at times. You have to live forgiveness every day. The only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended the injury to my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It took time to forgive and things have evolved over the years. But I can say this: I have never regretted forgiving him.

Patti Ann: When this happened, we never spoke of revenge. None of our family members did either. None of us went to the trial. Our job was to be there with Steven. Through faith, I saw that God had a different plan for all of this. There was a bigger purpose for this senseless act of violence.

There are times when you get into a disagreement with family members and honestly, it is harder to let go of that. Cardinal O’Connor encouraged us to be willing to accept the grace that was there for us to forgive. We have seen people destroyed from the inside out when they hold on to anger or hurt. I learned long ago that in order for us to get along as a couple, I had to let go of anger.

You have been invited to speak to thousands of people. What do you share with them when you speak?

Steven: I speak about the precious gift of forgiveness and pray to receive it. I also share how the moment I was shot, my life changed completely. But people do not have to wait for unusual circumstances to begin a life of faith. I encourage them to grow in their relationship with God and our Blessed Mother. I tell others that their life is important and has meaning, that they are special and a rare creation of God with enormous value. God created them with a purpose and through all eternity no one will love exactly the way they do.

Many people struggle with commitment, especially in marriage. How have you remained faithful to one another and to God?

Steven: We help one another on the journey. It wasn’t always easy. Patti Ann will tell you there were times when I was a real knucklehead. There have been days that are great and others are a struggle. Patti Ann told me early on, we didn’t get married to be divorced. She had a strong upbringing and went to Catholic schools; she was taught well and she stayed on the path Jesus had chosen for her. When we were first married, Patti Ann said we had to go to church. I knew that if I was going to succeed as a husband, a father, or a police officer that I had to come back to the Church. I had to be close to Our Lady. Looking back on the journey, I believe that this is what God intended for us.

Patti Ann: I never thought for a moment not to be with Steven. When I said yes, it was “for better or for worse.” We have been married 28 years and spent it supporting each other. I think it is so important for couples to encourage and help each other be the best they can be: always thinking of the other and what makes that person happy.

I think a lot of problems arise in marriage when couples don’t look for the good in the other. We are always changing and growing and you need to help each other in a marriage. Being at home or working outside the house, spouses have to support each other in what they are doing. Help each other become the best person they can be.

I think for any relationship, any friendship, but especially in marriage, communication is critical. We make a point to discuss what the other is going through. It’s so important to have the lines open and let each other know what your thoughts and feelings are. I can tell when Steven withdraws or is thinking, and I have learned when to give him space and when to talk.

We share each other’s lives deeply, listening and giving thoughts, feelings, and directions - working together and talking about whatever is going on. For example, when my father passed away 17 years ago, Steven knew my sorrow. He was very supportive and loving and caring.

What would you say to someone who might be going through a trial or struggling to say yes to life in difficult circumstances in life?

Patti Ann: It’s going to be OK. When something like this happens in your life, you don’t think it’s going to be OK. I never imagined we would be having a normal life out of an abnormal situation but we do. We walk by faith and not by sight.

Steven: It takes faith and it takes work. Practicing your faith makes all the difference in life. I don’t want to be separated from God; I want to listen to his voice. Over the years, I know that having accepted my suffering, I received a message of forgiveness and have been able to share it with others.

Through the years you have touched so many lives. What do you make of it all?

Steven: People have come to experience God through us. Sometimes God uses us, without us even knowing it. I know that people have come back to the Church or come back to the faith after hearing us. Others have quit drinking or tried to forgive. Back in 1987 when I came home, I knew my life was going to be very different. And it has been. It’s been very helpful in my journey. Life is so fleeting and then there is eternity. Life is so short.

We are sent here to do good with our lives. Love is the way. It is good to be alive. It is very good to be alive. I love my family. I have lived such a wonderful life. I am so grateful I could be with Patti Ann and Conor all this time.

(This article is reprinted from the Fall Issue of Imprint, a publication of the Sisters of Life that is printed and distributed by the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council. Steven McDonald is a member of Knights of Columbus Archbishop Molloy Council 1974 in Freeport, N.Y.)