Johann Christoph Arnold doesn’t remember exactly which school it was of the dozens and dozens he visited along with NYPD Detective Steven McDonald over the past 18 years. He does recall that it was very noisy, the kind of noise that only 3,000 students can make when they are growing restless while sitting in gymnasium bleachers.
Then Steven McDonald appeared in his wheelchair and began to speak—and the crowd of young people became absolutely silent, held rapt by his words and peace-filled manner.
“He got a standing ovation,” said Arnold, the leader of the Bruderhof Community, an international Christian church with branches in upstate New York.
“He really impacted each one of his audiences,” said Arnold, who frequently spoke alongside McDonald to high school audiences about nonviolent conflict resolution, forgiveness and reconciliation.
No matter whether they were speaking at a school in New York or on international visits to Northern Ireland and Israel, Arnold would marvel that everyone knew exactly who Detective McDonald was. Despite his high profile, the detective was an extremely humble man, Arnold said.
Arnold said that he will deeply miss McDonald, who died at age 59 on Jan. 10, just four days after suffering a heart attack.
“He made a deep impact on my life…I’m glad he’s with Jesus,” said Arnold, adding that his friend “longed for that for many years.”
The paralyzed officer’s physical limitations paled in comparison to his spiritual prowess. “Spiritually, he was like a giant,” Arnold said.
Arnold said it was impossible for him to speak about Detective McDonald without also speaking about his wife, Patti Ann. “Together, they were an unbeatable team in marriage and family life,” he said. “They made a real witness to that.”
The family life extends to their grown son, Sgt. Conor McDonald, a fourth-generation NYPD member.
In a brief interview with CNY on the day that Detective McDonald died, Cardinal Dolan called him “a prophet, without speaking, of the pro-life cause.”
“He showed us that the value of life doesn’t depend on physical ability, but on one’s heart and soul, both of which he had in abundance.”
The cardinal also credited the NYPD for “realizing that one can be a police officer even if one has such a severe physical challenge.”
“Being a good police officer is so much about encouragement, about reconciliation and peace-making,” all qualities that Detective McDonald had in abundance, the cardinal said.
Msgr. Peter G. Finn, administrator of Blessed Sacrament parish on Staten Island, where he also serves as regional dean, also knew Detective McDonald well for many years, dating to the day in July 1986 when the officer was shot and paralyzed by a teenager while on duty in Central Park.
Msgr. Finn was then director of communications for the archdiocese and recalled joining Cardinal O’Connor at Bellevue Hospital “for quite a while” on the day of the shooting.
Msgr. Finn said he would often accompany the cardinal, who served as a spiritual counselor and mentor to Steven and Patti Ann, on his frequent visits to the severely injured officer.
Msgr. Finn has stayed in touch with McDonald and his family over the succeeding decades. In the 10 years that Msgr. Finn has served at Blessed Sacrament, McDonald twice visited the parish, speaking to students at Blessed Sacrament School.
The last time he was in Steven’s presence was when the detective addressed the graduates at the eighth-grade graduation Mass for Catholic schools on Staten Island at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church there last year.
“He talked about forgiveness and the impact of loving your neighbor,” Msgr. Finn recalled. “It was a very moving speech.”
The officer’s gentleness, love of God and sanctity “just oozed out of his person,” the priest said. “He was a working police officer in his infirmity,” Msgr. Finn said. “He represented the best of Catholicism and of the New York Police Department.”
Though Msgr. Finn said that he was saddened at the loss of such a great man, he is heartened by a vision of McDonald “walking and talking free in the company of his loved ones, rejoicing in heaven.”