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Father Chester Smith dies at 60; he and his brother said to be first African American twin priests in U.S.

“My mother taught me that I must be a man of character and a man of God — well-educated and well-rounded,” Father Chester Smith once told Ebony. “If not, she was quick to remind us that she brought us into this world and could take us out of it.”

Father Chester Smith and his brother Father Charles Smith were believed to be the first African-American twins to be ordained Catholic priests in the United States.
Father Chester Smith and his brother, Father Charles Smith, were believed to be the first African American twins to be ordained Catholic priests in the United States.
Provided

Father Chester Smith and his brother made history when they were ordained in 1988.

They were believed to be the first African American twins to become Catholic priests in the United States.

Father Smith, a Chicago native who most recently was based in Indianapolis, died of a heart attack April 8 at the age of 60, according to the Divine Word Missionaries, the holy order of him and his identical twin, Father Charles Smith.

Father Chester Smith (holding chalice) and his twin brother Father Charles Smith celebrate their 25th anniversary as priests in a 2013 mass at St. Anselm’s church, 6045 S. Michigan.
Father Chester Smith (holding chalice) and his twin brother, Father Charles Smith, celebrate their 25th anniversary as priests in a 2013 mass at St. Anselm’s church, 6045 S. Michigan.
Brother Dan Holman SVD/Society of the Divine Word.

The Smiths grew up in the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex and attended Our Lady of the Gardens grade school at 133rd and Langley.

The twins once told Ebony magazine that they learned about black liberation leaders like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey from their parents, Mae Ruth and Charles Smith.

“My mother taught me that I must be a man of character and a man of God — well-educated and well-rounded,” Father Chester Smith said in the interview. “If not, she was quick to remind us that she brought us into this world and could take us out of it.”

Charles and Chester Smith made history in 1988 when they became the first black twins ordained by the Roman Catholic church in the United States.
Revs. Charles and Chester Smith made history in 1988 when they became the first African American twins ordained by the Roman Catholic church in the United States.
CST

From 2006 to 2010, Father Smith was president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, according to the Divine Word Missionaries. And for 20 years, he helped organize the national Black Catholic Men’s Conference.

In Chicago, he served at St. Anselm’s at 6045 S. Michigan and St. Elizabeth’s parish, 50 E. 41st St. He also had assignments in Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

As a youth, he was influenced by the work of Father Edward Delaney, a member of the Divine Word Missionaries. He said he used to ask himself, “Why would a white man be in the ghetto of Chicago working with gangs? But every day he was very inspiring,”

Father Charles Smith said his brother often spoke of being motivated by Father Delaney telling him: “Your people need you.”

Father Chester Smith preaching.
Father Chester Smith preaching.
Father Chester Smith

Father Chester Smith’s masses were lively and welcoming, punctuated by his urgings of “C’mon, y’all.” He wore African-inspired vestments, laughed often and walked down the center aisle to better connect with the congregation.

“Jesus dwells within me,” he’d tell worshippers. “He’s sitting here. He’s not on no church wall.”

The twins attended Divine Word Seminary High School in East Troy, Wis. Young Chester said he felt called to the priesthood at 18 as a seminarian working in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. He earned a sociology degree at Divine Word College in Epsworth, Iowa.

Twin priests, Father Chester (left) and Father Charles Smith, at a 2016 mass in Saginaw, Mich.
Twin priests, Father Chester (left) and Father Charles Smith, at a 2016 mass in Saginaw, Mich.
Father Charles Smith

The Smiths were ordained in 1988 at the Divine Word chapel at Techny, now part of Northbrook. At the time, Father Chester Smith told Jet magazine: “I am committed to bringing God’s liberating word to our people.”

“Father Chester’s ministry of liberation led him to travel throughout the United States, Europe, Canada and the Caribbean,” his brother said. “... His missions, revivals, workshops, retreats and motivational speaking filled that need.”

Father Chester Smith at a workshop in 2018.
Father Chester Smith at a workshop in 2018.
Father Chester Smith

At his final post in Indianapolis, Father Smith worked with the Bowman Francis Ministry, which does outreach with African American youth.

“He was devoted to uplifting the economically powerless and transforming the system in order to help people — regardless of ethnicity, race or religion — to help them realize their full potential as human beings,” said Father Mark Weber, a past superior.

In addition to his brother, Father Smith is survived by his sister, Marcheta, and brother Kermit. He was buried Thursday at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park. A future memorial service is being discussed.