Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 7, 2007
Faith, compassion, love of music are Smith's trademarks
Parents recall future bishop as fan of TV's Don Messer's Jubilee
- photo supplied
Don and Anne Marie, parents of Archbishop Richard Smith, say their son was a voracious reader and loved to sing from an early age.
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
The place - the slums of Lima Peru where desperately poor families shelter themselves in shacks and cardboard boxes.
The scene - a Lima religious dignitary takes then Bishop Richard Smith from Pembroke, Ont., through the melee of struggling humanity and fetid debris.
The event - a little girl's birthday. She is five. And she of course knows what she wants for her present.
The visiting bishop was staggered by the simple request.
"He was really struck by that - that she would only want a banana when here in our society, the children have so much more," says Anne Marie Butts Smith.
"He's told that story more than once."
She should know. For the bishop - now Richard Smith, the archbishop of Edmonton - is her eldest child.
When her son was born 48 years ago in Halifax, Anne Marie and husband Don named him Richard William after his grandfathers.
"He was a very happy baby. No trouble. A joy to have," says Anne Marie.
As his sisters and brother arrived - Monica, Paul and Clare - big brother Richard would welcome them and become "almost like their guardian, always telling us ' Monica needs this' or 'Paul needs that,'" remembers Anne Marie.
Life in the Halifax suburb's raised brick bungalow was good for the Smith clan. They trace their roots back to Ireland, Scotland and England and you'll see a shamrock incorporated in Archbishop Smith's coat of arms.
Focus on children
Anne Marie stayed home with her children until the youngest was in high school and then she took on secretarial work. Don supported his family by working in the sales department for CBC and later for the CNR.
But the couple's focus was always on their children.
Richard played street hockey, rode his bike and would meet up with the neighbourhood kids to skate at the nearby pond.
"But he had asthma quite bad, so his activities were a bit limited," recalls his mother.
Music is one of the archbishop's passions and even as a youngster, he was always singing. "As a little fellow he would love to sit and watch Don Messer," says Anne Marie.
A lad who always had his head in a book, Richard collected the whole set of the Hardy Boy mysteries. "We still have them," says his mother.
An easy youngster, Richard "would eat anything you put in front of him."
That older brother though was "a terrible tease," says his mother "and would just love to tease his sisters. He has a wonderful sense of humour."
The young Smiths started going to church once they hit three.
"The church was an old quonset hut," says Don. "It was rough and ready with all the kids carrying on."
Richard was confirmed at the first Mass of the new St. Michael's Catholic Church, became an altar server and went on to be ordained there. He celebrated his first Mass in his family's church.
Catholic schooling was not an option for the Smith children.
But when Richard went to high school, he worked at the church in the evenings "as a go-fer," says Don. "It was a great chance for him to study and do his homework."
Don says he wasn't surprised when one night when Richard was 17 and out to dinner with his parents, he asked them, "What would you think if I became a priest?"
Away from home
Their reply was measured and wise.
Says Don, "We told him, 'We would support you, but we want you to live away from home for at least a year.'"
University found him enrolled in the commerce faculty and involved in chaplancy at St. Mary's University.
Here Richard wholeheartedly embraced his love of music and he became director of the folk choir.
"On Sunday evening they would have a folk Mass and all the university students would be there - it would be standing room only," remembers Anne Marie.
Choir practice often happened at the Smith home and by 2 a.m. "they'd just be singing."
Richard did the usual things university students do. A disciplined and organized student, he worked weekends - a men's clothing store, desk clerk at hotels. He dated, had girlfriends.
"He was just an ordinary guy," says his mother.
Graduation came and Richard took a job in merchandising with Proctor and Gamble in Toronto. Three raises in one year. But after he had kept the "live one year away from home" promise to his parents, Richard returned home and entered the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax.
Yes, there was patterning for the priesthood in his life.
"He loved his Church," says Anne Marie.
And there have been priests scattered amongst his ancestors including Father Basil Butts in Edmonton. Ordained in Edmonton in 1949, Butts served as a pastor in parishes throughout central Alberta, taught and was principal at St. Mary's Boys' School, chaplain at St. Joseph's College.
Tears of joy
His parents also point to the succession of "wonderful, wonderful priests" who served in their parish as their family grew.
Richard's decision to become a priest was cheered by his brother and sisters.
On the day of his ordination, all his sister Clare could do was cry tears of joy.
"And she was supposed to sing the psalm!" says her mother.
Sing she did.
The family has watched as their eldest child and older brother has taken to travelling. "He takes every chance to get back to Rome," says Anne Marie, and has become comfortable in French, Italian and German - and sign language.
Don saw his son studying sign language one day and asked him, "Why ever are you learning that?"
His son replied with calm compassion, "Can you imagine what it must be like to be a deaf person going to Confession?"
So while Richard served in Halifax, deaf parishioners would follow him as he moved from parish to parish.
His parents are delighted that Richard is pleased with his move to Edmonton.
But when asked why they think the Lord chose their son, both Don and Anne Marie fall silent.
Finally they explain their son is a "private soul" who never shows stress and enjoys himself wherever he is.
Don hesitates and says he wants to say something but doesn't think it should be printed.
Finally he acquiesces.
"In all 48 years, we have never once heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He sees the good in people."