Patrick Smith, Bishop Peter Smith’s father, stands behind South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, at the finish of the Comrades Marathon in the late 1990s. “One of Mandela’s security men obliged my dad and took the shot,” said Bishop Smith. The bishop’s parents had a deep understanding of their country’s political and social issues. (Courtesy Bishop Peter Smith)
Patrick Smith, Bishop Peter Smith’s father, stands behind South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, at the finish of the Comrades Marathon in the late 1990s. “One of Mandela’s security men obliged my dad and took the shot,” said Bishop Smith. The bishop’s parents had a deep understanding of their country’s political and social issues. (Courtesy Bishop Peter Smith)
Years ago growing up in South Africa, a young Peter Smith went with his dad on a St. Vincent de Paul home visit to assist a family dwelling in a shack.

“I will never forget that experience,” said now-Bishop Smith, shaking his head. “And over the years it was the same for my father; he’d never forgotten it.”

What occurred that day — and his parents’ longtime work with the society — helped mold the future bishop’s views about faith, service and gratitude.

“Dad raised his six children with a deep sensitivity for those in need and the less fortunate,” said the prelate, auxiliary bishop of the Portland Archdiocese. “He often used the expression, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’”

The bishop’s mother, Joicelyn Smith, was an archivist, and Patrick Smith, his father, was an attorney with the family law firm. Patrick joined St. Vincent de Paul in his early 20s and remained active in the organization for more than 60 years. His sudden death in 2012 likely was from an illness contracted while aiding refugees as a Vincentian.

His mother held a number of top leadership posts in the society and remains involved at 83 years old.

“They taught us that the Lord has blessed us, and we need to make sure that where we can, we bless others,” said Bishop Smith, recalling how the trunk of his dad’s car always was filled with a pile of fleece blankets for people who might need extra warmth.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society began operating in South Africa in 1856. Because the country does not have the kinds of social safety nets that exist in the United States, “what St. Vincent de Paul is doing there is much more basic,” Bishop Smith said. “Along with providing clothing, a lot of what they do is to bring food parcels to families. We are talking things such as flour, sugar, cornmeal.” More recently the society has been caring for refugees.

Bishop Smith’s parents had a comprehensive understanding of the political and social issues in South Africa. One of their relatives was Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, an outspoken opponent of apartheid. To preserve people’s memories of the nation’s painful history, Joicelyn Smith established what was known as the “the struggle archives” at a local university.

Bishop Smith moved to the United States in 1983 and said he’s tried to discern how best to serve the less fortunate as both a priest and a bishop. As pastor of St. Rose Parish in Northeast Portland he was a strong supporter of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society conference, and he currently is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Africa. He’s also been underwriting a woman religious who runs a day care for children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa.

“There is such a need and so many ways we can help others,” said Bishop Smith. “It’s about figuring out where God’s calling you to act.”

The bishop admits that the St. Vincent de Paul outings his dad took him on as a kid were not always his favorite activity. But the last conversation he had with his father in person before he died was about the visit neither ever forgot.

Peter, about 10 years old at the time, and his dad went out to “an extremely poor area where people lived in hovels and shacks,” the bishop recalled. “We were going to see a family, Mr. and Mrs. Clark.” It was near Christmas, and the Smiths had a variety of items to give.

The Clarks’ home was a neatly kept 12-foot-by-12-foot cinderblock space. In the corner was a kitchen unit; there was an outhouse outdoors. Mr. Clark had worked in the mines and was missing most of one leg.

“When we arrived, Mrs. Clark wanted to show us hospitality,” said the bishop. “All she had was water to offer. There was no running water, so she gave it to us from the tap outside.”

The hospitality was moving, but “what floored us was the prayer,” Bishop Smith said. “Mrs. Clark prayed, ‘Thank you, God, for the many blessings we have received and please bless the less fortunate.’

“Here are these people living in abject poverty — with a tarp for a roof — and they are thanking God for their many blessings.

“That’s the thing with St. Vincent de Paul,” he said. It can show what authentic gratitude to God looks like and “help you see the difference so many things can make.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org