Father Paul B. Smith and Sister Helen Strueder.
This history of the life of Reverend Paul B. Smith was compiled by Reverend Robert Miller.
- Born: September 29, 1931 (in Baltimore MD)
- Frederick Douglas High School in Baltimore
- Undergraduate work at Loyola College of Baltimore, and Boston College
- University of Scranton from 1967-69, earning a Masters in English and Administration
- Studied in seminary in Louisiana (Alexandria Diocese)
- Baltimore on May 26, 1962 (for the Diocese of Alexandria, LA)
- 25th Jubilee Mass on June 21, 1987 at St. Pius V Church in Baltimore MD (his home church)
- Anthony’s (Cottonport, LA)
- Holy Ghost (Marksville LA)
- St. Mary’s Assumption (Scranton, PA)
- Holy Saviour (Alexandria, VA)
- Came to Holy Angels School as Principal in 1970
- English Teacher at Malcolm X College (1974-1994)
- Holy Angels Church fire – spring 1986
- Received St. Ignatius College Prep’s Dei Gloriam Award August 1, 1988
- Final Years
- Car accident leaving him paralyzed - 1994
- Died November 23, 1996 in Chicago IL
- Funeral November 30, 2001 in Chicago IL (Bishop George Murray presiding)
- Buried in Alexandria, LA
The Early Years
Paul Bernard Smith was born in Baltimore MD on September 29, 1931. Segregation was very much alive in Baltimore where he was raised, and would affect his life. He was rejected by all three Catholic high schools there – 2 turning him down outright because of race, 1 saying his “application was too late”. (A side-note to this childhood experience is that his sister’s 5 sons later attended each of the 3 Catholic high schools that rejected him!). As a result, Smith attended a public high school, Frederic Douglas High School. As a young man, he worked summer jobs in Baltimore at the Maryland Dry Dock, Bethlehem Steel and Domino Sugar Company.
But throughout his early years, Paul Smith always maintained an interest in becoming a priest. Despite the prejudice that had denied him a Catholic high school education, he was blessed to meet a Jesuit priest associated with Loyola College in Baltimore MD. Paul was granted a scholarship to attend there, and in 1958 became one of the first black graduates of that college. He received a bachelors degree in English. After numerous rejections by various seminaries, Paul was finally accepted by the Bishop of Alexandria, LA, and left MD to attend seminary there.
Paul returned “in triumph” to his hometown of Baltimore on May 26, 1962 for his ordination at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He was the first black man from Baltimore to be ordained a diocesan priest. 20 years later, in 1982, Fr. Paul Smith would be honored by his alma mater, Loyola College in Baltimore, with its Carroll Medal for Outstanding Achievement. The awards ceremony would say of him “Father Smith’s life and work are a living embodiment of the spiritof Loyola College – ‘Strong Truths – Well Lived’.”
After his ordination and several early parish assignments in Louisiana (Cottonport LA, and teaching in Marksville LA), Fr. Smith moved to PA to attend the University of Scranton from 1967-69. While living at St. Mary Assumption Church in Scranton (and helping in the parish), he earned his Masters Degree in English and Administration at the University. After receiving his degree, the Bishop of Alexandria LA asked Fr. Smith to become the principal of a recently integrated school there (Menard High School). Racism reared its head again at this decision, as whites balked at this decision, even though Fr. Smith was the only priest in the diocese with the academic credentials for this job.
Shortly after that, the legendary Fr. George Clements of the Archdiocese of Chicago contacted Fr. Smith. Clements asked Fr. Smith to come to Holy Angels Church in Chicago to run the school there. Clements pulled no punches with Fr. Smith, telling him “like it was” in that inner-city neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. The school was located
in the middle of a inner-city ghetto, with 5 federally subsidized housing projects as its neighbors. Fr. Smith came to look Holy Angels over, decided to accept the job, and never looked back. He would spend the rest of his life there.
The “Chicago Years”
In his 24 years as Principal, he made Holy Angels School a byword for excellence in values, discipline and education. Fr. Smith’s educational philosophy (like his traditional Catholicism) was unabashedly old-fashioned. Students still formed lines. Silence and tidiness ruled in classrooms. “The King’s English” governed student’s speech. Discipline was strict. Parents had to attend religious instruction classes. Fr. Smith used to say “We don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel. This works. Just look at the products of the traditional Catholic schools today. They are successful people leading our city and businesses. If your children do as well, And we hope they do better, we’ve done our job.” The school year was expanded to 220 days a year (11 months) instead of the usual 176 required by law in the 1970’s. Fr. Smith’s regular comment when asked about this was “ A three-month summer recess dates back to the time in America when children had to have time off to work on their family’s farms, harvesting crops. The only crop the inner city produces is failure.”
Holy Angels was (and continues to be) the largest black Catholic grade school in the nation, with a consistent enrollment of 1200-1300 students. Though the school buildings were run down, classes oversized, and inner city problems abounded outside its doors, Holy Angels School continued to flourish under Fr. Smith. He helped make Holy Angels School a spring of hope in the educational desert of Chicago public schooling, offering children a chance to succeed and achieve. Students were taught to be confident and proud through actual accomplishments. Parents knew that their children were expected to do well, and were offered things they could not get at public schools: strict discipline, sound moral values and a Catholic education. Students had tons of homework each night, and could expect to get paddled if they were out of line. Smith was once quoted as having a “ketchup bottle” approach to discipline: “when all else fails, hit it on the bottom”.
One newspaper said of his school“Holy Angels School has been put under a microscope by numerous educational, civic, social and religious organizations. They all go away amazed at a school in the midst of a low socio-economic area that is doing a top-notch job of educating youngsters.” [Chicago Courier, Feb 9, 1974] Fr. Smith used toproudly state that “ a person is proud of what he does, and proud that he IS somebody. At Holy Angels, we spell pride two ways. P-R-O-D-U-C-E and A-C-H-I-E-V-E. These are the cornerstones of Holy Angels School”. The motto of the Holy Angels under Fr. Smith’ leadership was “where proud black youngsters produce and achieve.”
Fr. Smith’s Educational Philosophy
In giving speeches about his work, Fr. Smith used to comment about Holy Angels School that“Our school’s greatest contribution is not just to the Church but to the entire field of education. We have demonstrated that inner city youth can achieve at academic levels equal to suburban youth in elitist schools. More particularly, we’ve shown that survival is not dependent upon handouts from the Archdiocese or upon large doles from the parish.”
In a 1979 interview with a Scranton, PA newspaper, Smith spoke proudly of the achievements and accomplishments of “his children”. “The children achieve at the national average or better on standardized tests of basic skills. Our truancy rate is minimal. More than 20 absentees in one day would concern us. This is an indication that our children are happy and want to come to school. Our students are able to go to the best Catholic high schools in the city without any remedial work. Our expectations are high. We expect more and that’s why we get more.”.
Fr. Smith said that once in the turbulent 1970’s, he addressed an auditorium of black fists raised in pride. He asked everyone who had straight A’s to raise their fists. No hands were raised. He then asked everyone with straight B’s to raise their hands. Again there were no hands. Smith then added “ What we’re saying to our children is ‘don’t tell us what you are. Don’t simply say I’m proud because I’m black. Be proud of what you have done’. We are the most inner-city of all inner-city schools, yet we’re producing the best black students in the city of Chicago.”
At the same time, Fr. Smith realized the vital importance of education in faith and religious catechesis on young people. “We stress the necessity of attending Sunday Mass for all our students. If they are not Catholic, we tell their parents that it’s illogical to submit your child to us and not know what we’re all about. Therefore, it is consistent and reasonable to require that non-Catholics accept instructions in the Catholic faith without baptism being required. Parents must know what we are about, but they must also be involved. They must demonstrate their interest in their child’s academic progress. It has been our experience that, while not all accept the Catholic faith, most are impressed by the presentation of its systematic body of truths. Many freely convert. We’ll have baptisms of over 100 or so after about three months of convert classes held twice a week.”
In one talk, Fr. Smith offered the following advice to those who work as spiritual leaders in the African-American communities of Chicago and other cities. “ Don’t apologize for your faith! Proclaim it vigorously and persistently. To go into the inner city and proselytize with the idea of sacrificing your life and saving your soul is a myopic view. The real worker wants to share with those he serves and respond to their needs. He must be motivated by their love. Don’t try to change the black community culturally but try to share with them the God who transcends our cultural differences. You have to have your head on straight. Know who you are and why you’ve come to the inner city. Deal with that before you make the commitment to serve in the black community. You can expect your commitment to be tested.”
Fr. Paul Smith had a beautiful singing voice. The faithful early Sunday morning parishioners of Holy Angels Church recall with great love his breaking into song in the middle of the Mass. Many people remember as well the great gusto with which he enjoyed his weekly Sunday morning breakfast with Holy Angels people in the church basement. Smith was also a fine cook, skilled especially at making gumbo.
While in Chicago, one of Fr. Smith’s “side jobs” was working in the Communications Department at Malcolm X College, teaching English. In one professor’s Literature class, he used to be a guest speaker, reciting Paul L. Dunbar non-stop for 15-20 minutes for enthralled students. When he left the class, students would discuss his powerful recitation and want to know which classes he taught, so they could enroll in them.
Tragedy in His Later Years
In the summer of 1994, Fr. Smith was doing what he loved to do – thinking of his school and students first. He traveled to PA by van to pick up some desks for the school. Unfortunately, the driver at the wheel with him ran off the road, resulting in a horrible accident. As result of that accident, Fr. Smith was partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, confined to a wheelchair. Despite his intense desire to stay in contact with the school, his injuries prevented him from ever again taking an active role in school leadership, and he was forced to step down as Principal from his beloved School.
Fr. Smith lived at the time in a condominium on Dorchester Street in nearby Hyde Park. Following his accident, he had a number of caregivers who stayed with him throughout the day and night to care for his needs. Always a gentle and kind man who was sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate around him, he would occasionally get taken advantage of by people who abused his gentleness and kindness. Perhaps it was this kindness that allowed a caregiver who was a drug user into his apartment in late November 1996, or perhaps he simply did not know the man’s history. At any rate, on the night of November 23, 1996 this caregiver (with two accomplices) is alleged to have robbed and murdered Fr. Smith. He was found the next morning bound and gagged in his bedroom. The men who murdered Fr. Smith were each sentenced to 115 years in prison (100 years each for murder and 15 years each for robbery).
The funeral for Fr. Paul Smith took place a week later, was celebrated by the Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago George Murray, and was jammed with his friends and former students. He was survived by his sister Mrs. Agnes Dorsey (Baltimore MD), a brother Leonard Smith (Chicago IL) and his adopted mother Mrs. Hazel Smith (New Orleans, LA). The multitude of tributes published at that time about him could never capture the heart of this gentle giant, a man of immense conviction and compassion, a priest of deep faith and passion. Fr. Paul Bernard Smith was priest, educator, prophet, preacher, mentor and friend to thousands.