‘God’s nobleman’

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Lebanon man was the first African-American Kentucky native priest

By Stephen Lega

The headline proclaimed, “Father Vincent Smith’s First Mass a Notable Occasion.”
Why exactly was this Mass, celebrated June 10, 1934, worthy of headlines? It was the first time an African-American born in Kentucky had celebrated Mass as a Catholic priest.
The newspaper wrote that more than 2,000 black Catholics — including Smith’s parents, who were both in their 80s — attended the Mass along with 30 priests from the diocese of Louisville and surrounding dioceses.
“It seemed that the whole population turned out. I think they did,” Smith was later quoted as saying. “My church had been restricted to colored for my Mass, but the white parishioners crowded in, too.”
Many events in Smith’s life would be recorded in newspapers. He was profiled in Ebony magazine, and The Rev. Albert S. Foley devoted a chapter to Smith in the book, “God’s Men of Color”.
Smith was born Aug. 2, 1894, in Lebanon to Pious and Mary Eliza Spalding Smith. He was the 12th of their 13 children.
Foley noted that Pious had been a plasterer by trade, and he was hired to help with the construction of the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Nelson County. Pious often took his son to the monastery when he was a child.
At 17 years old, Smith worked as a chauffeur and valet for Rev. Ferdinand Brossart, who was then Bishop of Covington. At 18, Smith joined the Army and served 18 months in France during World War I. When he returned, Smith was convinced he was meant to become a priest, and Brossart enthusiastically supported him, according to Foley.
Brossart tried to gain admission for Smith at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Baltimore. At that time, it was the only seminary that would educate African-Americans to become priests.
The seminary officials agreed to admit Smith, but they told Brossart they could not promise Smith would be ordained. The Bishop of Baltimore previously had ordained a few African-American priests, but he was hesitant to ordain more because he had difficultly finding placements for them.
With his dream on hold, Smith went to work in steel mills in Gary, Ind. He saved his money and later enrolled at Sacred Heart College, a seminary in Greenville, Miss. That seminary later moved to Bay St. Louis, Mo., and in 1926, he was one of four African-Americans ordained in the first class to graduate from the seminary, which had been renamed St. Augustine’s.
But he was still not yet a priest.
He took his first vows in 1928 in East Troy, Wis., but he had to wait until May 23, 1934 before he was officially ordained as a priest by the Most Rev. R.O. Gerow, then Bishop of Natchez (Louisiana).
The next month, Smith returned to his hometown to celebrate his first Mass. At that time, Lebanon’s Catholic community was still segregated. White Catholics attended St. Augustine, while black Catholics attended St. Monica.
Rev. Joseph A. Hogarty, who was the pastor at both churches, recognized that this was an important event, and not just for Smith. According to a newspaper account of the event, Hogarty “arranged for the Mass to be said in St. Augustine’s in order to accommodate the many friends of the newly ordained priests.”
Smith went on to serve parishes in Lafayette, La., Chicago and St. Louis. His final pastorate was at Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd in Trenton, NJ. After six years in Trenton, Smith was ready to return to Kentucky, where he sought to join the Trappists.
Once again, Smith’s decision made the news. At the time, Smith had been identified as the only black priest in the United States with white assistants. He left the life of the parish priest in 1949, and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he took the name Mary Simon.
After completing the two years of his novitiate, Smith took his final vows as a Trappist on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, May 20, 1951, a day he spent visiting with family and friends.
“I still carry vivid, happy memories of the great pleasure of seeing all of you on Profession day at Gethsemani,” Smith later wrote in a letter to his nephew, niece and their children. “As you know, it was a real ‘Red-Letter’ day for me.”
The day after he made his final vows, he was transferred to the Abbey of Genesee, a newly opened Trappist monastery in Piffard, New York, where he served as novice master until he died of a heart attack on March 22, 1952. Smith is buried at the monastery in New York.
Upon his death, the “Rev. Father Provincial” of the monastery wrote to the family informing them of Smith’s death. The Father Provincial noted that Smith was a source of good cheer, adding that even the hospital corridors echoed his passing.
“Father Simon from the first days of his novitiate supplied the fine balance and the lubrication of good cheer with sound judgment,” the Father Provincial wrote. “All proclaimed him, God’s nobleman, a man’s man, friendly apostle, a Crusader for souls, the kindly missionary ....”