Smith twins celebrate 25 years of traveling priesthood

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, July 7, 2013

Divine Word Fathers Charles and Chester Smith, greet parishioners and family following their silver jubilee Mass at St. Anselm Church, 6045 S. Michigan Ave., on April 13. The priests made history by becoming the first African-American twin priests to be ordained in the Catholic Church in America. Father Charles Smith ministered to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

In 1988, the Smith brothers — identical twins Chester and Charles — made history as the first set of African-American twins to be ordained in the United States.

Now, the 53-year-old, Chicagobred brothers celebrate their 25th year as priests.

And it’s been a journey enjoyed together.

“No matter what, there’s a loving person next to me,” said Father Chester Smith, the spontaneous, happy-go-lucky brother, who serves as a fitting counter to the serious demeanor of his twin, Father Charles Smith.

While growing up on the city’s South Side, the Smith brothers admired the work of the Divine Word Missionaries ministering at the now-shuttered Our Lady of the Gardens Parish.

“They found the beauty in people and culture … and their work urged introspection,” Chester Smith said.

In particular, the brothers grew fond of Father Ed Delaney, a dynamic priest who brought a community- service mindset to his work in an Altgeld Gardens neighborhood increasingly plagued by violence and discord.

“Chester and I marveled at Father Ed’s ability to bring people together and to bring them toward God. He was a true social agent for change,” said Charles Smith, the older brother by five minutes.

The Smith brothers also found spiritual inspiration in their mother, MaeRuth, a community social worker who raised the twins as well as their two additional siblings — sister Marcheta and brother Kermit.

“Our mother always encouraged us to have a closer relationship with God and to pray about the things we wanted fulfilled in our lives,” Chester Smith said.

Following elementary school, the brothers attended Divine Word High School Seminary in East Troy, Wis., and, later, the Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

During a summer break in college, the brothers worked at a Divine Word-sponsored high school in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Charged with community evangelization, the duo encountered dozens of local residents asking the brothers about their interest in joining the priesthood. That experience compelled the brothers to more seriously discern their futures.

They returned to college to reflect and pray, discuss religious life with others and eventually committed themselves to the vocation.

25 years in priesthood

The Smith brothers both chose to become Divine Word Missionaries, a likely move given their life-long interaction with the order and their appreciation for the order’s diversity. Following their 1988 ordination, the twins separated for the first time in their lives.

Chester Smith returned home to Chicago’s South Side and landed at St. Anselm, 6045 S. Michigan Ave. Subsequent pastoral stops took him to St. Louis, Atlanta and Indianapolis.

Charles Smith, meanwhile, began his religious life in San Bernardino, Calif. He later traveled to Bolivia as a missionary, ministered to inmates in federal prisons and currently serves as the hospital chaplain at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

Even when apart, the brothers found ways to collaborate, specifically in youth ministry.

The Smiths co-founded Rites of Passage, a social and spiritual program for young adults. Active in about 20 parishes across the United States, the program attracts youth to spirituality and the Catholic Church and guides them through their sacramental rites.

They also co-created Ambassadors of the Word, a peer group ministry program that encourages youth development. That program remains present in about 15 U.S. communities and five international spots.

“It’s been a powerful experience to see these young people look at the church in an honest light,” Chester Smith said. “It’s confirmed in me the power of the Catholic faith and its ability to be a viable force in peoples’ lives.”

The brothers also co-authored a pair of books: “My Family, Our Family,” a manual for African- American family Kwanzaa celebrations, and “Boyhood to Manhood,” a coming-of-age manual for African-American boys.

A brotherly journey

Now living under the same roof in Indianapolis, the brothers continue their spiritual leadership with efforts focused on evangelization, parish stewardship and young adult ministry.

“We focus on a single, core mission, which is to bring the Word of God to areas where it is not present,” Charles Smith said. “It’s encouraging to see people rise up and liberate their minds because of the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ.”

Reflecting on 25 years in the priesthood, Chester said he has relished having his best friend at his side during the most important periods of his life. He calls the bonds he shares with his brother “mystical” and knows that the relationship “came from God.”

“Charles has always been there to give kindred support and affirmation, even at times when I had negative thoughts or fears,” Chester Smith said.

Charles Smith shares similar sentiments, calling his brother “a source of security and happiness.”

“The priesthood journey is not easy and I couldn’t have made it without [Chester],” Charles Smith said. “Walking this journey side by side has been more fulfilling, joyful and peaceful.”