Internationally acclaimed African-American Catholic preacher dies suddenly
Father Chester Smith, 1959-2020
Father Chester Smith SVD, half of the first set of African-American twins to become Catholic priests, died suddenly on April 8 at age 60.
Father Smith grew up in Chicago’s inner city and rose to become an international leader in African-American ministry and youth outreach.
Inspired by his mother and a parish priest at Our Lady of the Gardens Church on Chicago’s far south side, his interest in a life of service began early.
“Father Chester often spoke of the encouragement he received from Father [Edward] Delaney to become a priest ‘because your people need you,’” said his identical twin brother Father Charles Smith SVD. “Father Delaney’s comments were the foundation of his ministry, encouraging Black men and women to be leaders in their communities, parishes, and churches.”
Born five minutes after his brother in 1959, Chester was the second of Charles A. and Mae Ruth (nee Forte) Smith’s four children. As teenagers, the brothers attended Divine Word Seminary High School in East Troy, Wis., and then Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, where Chester earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
In 1982, the Smith twins professed religious vows in the Society of the Divine Word at Bay St. Louis, Miss., site of the first Catholic seminary for African-American students. And in 1988, they made history when they were ordained by Most Rev. J. Terry Steib SVD and became the first pair of African-American twins to become priests in the United States.
Father Chester Smith once said that he finally and fully committed to the idea of becoming a priest when he was a seminarian, working in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
“He was devoted to uplifting the economically powerless and transforming the system in order to help people—regardless of ethnicity, race or religion—to help them realize their full potential as human beings,” said Father Mark Weber SVD, a past provincial superior who now serves St. Anselm, one of Chicago’s historical African-American parishes.
During his priesthood, Father Smith was an associate pastor at St. Anselm and St. Elizabeth parishes in Chicago, as well as St. Nicholas in St. Louis. He founded Ambassadors of the Word, a peer group ministry program that fosters youth rites of passage and cross-cultural experiences. And he and his brother developed Boyhood to Manhood, a parish-based program to help young Black men realize their value, get in touch with their spirituality and train future Church leaders.
As a founding member of the Bowman Francis Ministry Team, Father Chester Smith designed and implemented retreats, leadership programs, and revivals that celebrate African and African-American culture within the context of the Catholic Church. For two decades, he organized the National Black Catholic Men’s Conference, which annually draws multiple generations of African-American men for workshops and liturgies.
As part of his legacy, Father Smith also co-authored two books: “Boyhood to Manhood,” a rite of passage manual for African-American boys, and “My Family, Our Family,” a manual for family Kwanzaa celebration.
From 2006 to 2010, he served as president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.
In addition to degrees from Divine Word College and Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, Father Smith pursued French studies at the University of Montreal in Montreal, Canada, and Rites of Passage Training at the Institute of Black Studies in Milwaukee, Wis.
“Father Chester’s ministry of liberation led him to travel throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean,” his brother said. “He wanted to feed people who were hungry for the Word and the truth about life, especially from a spiritual point of view. His missions, revivals, workshops, retreats, and motivational speaking filled that need.”
Along with his twin brother, Father Smith is survived by a sister Marcheta; brother, Kermit; and godchildren.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the family will hold a private gravesite service later this week. He will be laid to rest at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, Ill. A memorial service may be planned for a later date.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Smith can be made to Bowman Francis Ministry, c/o Society of the Divine Word Chicago Province, P.O. Box 6038, Techny, IL 60082-6038.
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