Years ago, when his parish priest asked him if he’d ever felt called to the priesthood, the Rev. Robert McLean’s answer was an emphatic no.
“I shut it down immediately!” he said. “But about a year later, I felt the call.”
Robert is the new rector in both parishes of New Maryland and Fredericton Junction. He comes to New Brunswick from Jamaica, by way of Labrador.
Here is the story of his journey.
LIFE IN JAMAICA
Robert was born an Anglican in Jamaica. It is the historic church there, as the country is a member of the British Commonwealth.
After graduating from high school, Robert attended community college, earning an associate degree in accounting. But when he finished, his desire was to go into the armed forces.
“My priest at the time took me to the army headquarters for the interview,” he said, adding it was then that he asked about Robert’s calling.
As much as the question might have shocked him, it wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a notion.
“When I was doing my associate degree, my colleagues used to say ‘you should be a priest.’ They felt I should go to seminary,” he said, adding he spent a lot of time in bookstores and the library researching religion. “I dismissed them.”
The army rejected Robert, so he had another idea: teaching. His degree allowed him to teach a few years before getting more formal education, so he took that route, teaching middle and high school students English, bible knowledge, social studies and Caribbean history.
During that time, Robert assisted his priest with youth group. But he lost count of the number of times people — even strangers — would come up to him and tell him he should be a priest.
The most compelling incident took place at a teachers’ workshop. Robert arrived early and helped the speaker set up the sound system.
“He whispered, ‘are you a priest?’ I said no. He said ‘you look like a priest,’” said Robert.
During the workshop, Robert had a question, but before he answered Robert’s query, the speaker told the crowd about meeting Robert earlier, and prophesized that he would become a priest.
Then there was a funeral where Robert was assisting during communion. One of his former high school teachers attended, and during communion, she drew him out of the line and said ‘you should become a priest.’
Imagine! A member of the United Church telling Robert he should become an Anglican priest.
“So I told my priest,” said Robert, who was finally beginning to think about a future in ordained ministry.
After attending a vocations seminar with the bishop, he felt he was being called.
“My priest said, ‘whatever you are feeling, write it to the bishop.’”
Robert went through the checks and balances and all agreed with the legitimacy of the calling.
That was the year 2000. Robert was 23. He resigned from teaching and entered seminary. All his previous study on religions was a help; in fact, “I think it’s actually at the core of my calling.”
He was ordained a priest in 2004, and married Sheree in 2011. They have two children, Sebastian, 10, and Abigail, 7.
“I was happy being a priest, overall, in Jamaica,” he said. “But I didn’t like the shifts, the social climate, more than anything else, in the country.”
Changes in society, the lack of respect for institutions, the law, the clergy; the technology that seemed to drain the humanity from people; and changes to the Church and how people responded to the Church all became a heavy burden for him.
He began to ask himself, ‘do I have to stay here?’
“That started a process in me,” he said.
His target of choice was Canada, where he had visited once, so he sent out a few resumés.
“None of the applications I sent received a positive response, so I took that as a no from God and stopped applying,” he said.
But it wasn’t a no from God. It was a wait.
“Out of the blue, a colleague called me,” he said. “She said she was offered a position in the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland & Labrador.”
She told him she’d accepted it, on the condition that the bishop offer Robert a position as well.
“She didn’t know I was looking!” he said, adding she asked Robert to apologize to Sheree for being so presumptuous.
He sent his details off to the bishop as instructed, but the only offer was to put him in the pool. Eight months went by, and Robert lost hope. In January of 2017, convinced he was staying put, he dutifully made a parish plan for the year.
In June, the bishop had an offer: Labrador City.
While the McLeans spent six happy years in the wilds of the sub-arctic, they really had no idea what they were in for.
“I could not have imagined the vast distance between Lab City and the centre of the diocese, St. John’s,” he said. “Even when I accepted, and went, I didn’t know. Friends said to me, ‘when you go to Labrador, it’s unlikely you’ll see us more than once a year.’ I saw them twice in six years.”
Then there was the weather.
“I had never seen snow,” he said, adding the day he arrived, it was 17 degrees, and he was wearing what he thought was a good winter jacket he’d bought in Boston years before.
A 17-degree day in Jamaica is a cold day. He was freezing from day one.
While Sheree had been hesitant to move when the subject had first been raised, she was happy and excited. She ended up working for the Bank of Montreal and has been able to transfer to a Fredericton branch.
While the weather took some getting used to, the people were welcoming and generous, and the place was safe, far from the crime he’d been used to.
“You never realize how stressed you are until you step out of a situation,” he said. “Living in Jamaica, you have to deal with worries of personal safety and you’re constantly on guard. We had moved to a place where we could sleep with the doors unlocked.
“The Lab City experience was wonderful. It was the right place for me at the right time,” he said. “But the distance from the home I still love…”
Travelling out of Labrador is a two-day affair unless you are staying in the province. They managed to get home twice in six years. Aging parents, children far from their grandparents, a bit of homesickness and the cost of travel from Labrador all prompted Robert to begin thinking about a move.
The family wanted to stay in Canada, and the photos they’d seen of New Brunswick found a place in their hearts. So when Robert began looking, it was in the Diocese of Fredericton.
“We fell in love with New Brunswick long before we had the opportunity to come here,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
The first time he saw the province for real was in June, during his visit to find a house. He’d already been hired the month before, having done the interview online.
“It lived up to my expectations, and it still does,” he said.
This past summer, the family bid farewell to Lab City and drove west to Baie Comeau, took the ferry to Matane in Gaspé, and followed the St. John River down the province to Fredericton. The scenery did not disappoint, even for the children, said Robert.
“We knew this was where we wanted to come,” he said. “Every single person we met — in Labrador, Montreal, Toronto — has said ‘you are going to a beautiful place and you’re going to love it.’ Our experience with people here has confirmed it.”
The family has settled into their house in Tracy, which they love. Robert is 15 minutes from Holy Trinity in New Maryland. The children are happy in their new school in Oromocto, where they are enrolled in French Immersion. And Sheree is looking forward to her new branch at BMO.
So will the McLeans be making this their long-term home?
“I should hope so, by his grace and if the people still love me after year one,” he said.
His mother is starting to make plans to visit.
If you or someone you know in the diocese is from far away, why not contact the editor for a possible My Journey Here story: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The McLean family stopped at Manic 5 Dam in Quebec, as they left Labrador for the ferry in Baie Comeau, which brought them to New Brunswick. Sheree is seen here with her family.
2. The Rev. Robert McLean inside Holy Trinity Church in New Maryland.
3. Children Abigail and Sebastian play in their yard in Labrador City, NL
4. A bishop's visit in Lab City, NL: Bishop Sam Rose (centre), Archdeacon Charlene Taylor (right), assistant clergy in Lab West — the Rev. Doug Kean and the Rev. Rowena Payne — and Robert.
All photos submitted.