June 24, 2017

Newly ordained priest from Franklin County shares conversion story

By Carolee McGrath

Father James Smith, center, celebrated a solemn Mass in extraordinary form at Our Lady of Czestochowa in Turners Falls, Sunday, June 18. Father Ryan Sliwa, the parochial vicar of St. Mary Parish in Westfield, was the deacon of the Mass. Transitional Deacon Michael Kokoszka, on right, was the subdeacon of the liturgy. (IObserve photos/courtesy of Patrick Miller)

BUCKLAND – Father James Smith, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) didn’t grow up Catholic.

As a matter of fact, the Smith family comes from a long line of Puritans, dating back to the very first settlers in Massachusetts. Father Smith is a descendant of Samuel Smith, one of the original founders of the town of Hadley in the late 1600s. One of six children, Father Smith grew up in the Franklin County town of Buckland. No one in his family is Catholic. But on May 26, Father Smith was ordained in Lincoln, Nebraska, after seven years of formation in Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, located in Denton, Nebraska.

“It’s the beauty of Catholicism and the beauty of the traditional liturgy that converted me,” said Father Smith, whose community offers the traditional Latin Mass in parishes across Europe and North America. Father Smith has been assigned to St. Stanislaus Parish in Nashua, New Hampshire, which is a parish entrusted to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter by the bishop of Manchester.

Last Sunday, June 18, Father Smith celebrated a solemn Mass in extraordinary form at Our Lady of Czestochowa in Turners Falls, a parish he attended when he came home on breaks from the seminary.

“I had received from my parents a love of God, but until I found the Catholic Church, I did not really know the way to worship God,” said Father Smith, who graduated from Pioneer Valley Christian Academy in Springfield in 1988. Father Smith attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, earning a bachelor of arts degree in political science with a concentration in journalism. When he was in his early 20s, he left Buckland for Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives under Tom Delay when he was Majority Whip and then for J.C. Watts Jr., when he was the chairman of the Republican conference.

Father Smith grew up in the Baptist Church but began to attend churches of different denominations as a young adult in Washington.

“I was worshiping at different churches. I was trying to find out about what does God want. I became an Episcopalian. It was a beautiful liturgy, that’s what attracted me,” he told iObserve.

But he said it was the witness of a friend, which started him on a journey to the Catholic Church.

“The first Catholic person I met who proposed the religion converted me. It took me 10 years, but he converted me,” Father Smith said of his friend, Richard Diamond.

“Most Catholics I met were apologizing for the faith, not proposing it. He was very knowledgeable about his faith. He felt very confident about discussing it. He simply shared the faith, his love for the church and his love for the traditional liturgy,” said Father Smith.

Father Smith was received into the church in 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq, where he was doing diplomatic work for the Pentagon and later the Foreign Agricultural Service.

“God was always talking to me. I wasn’t always listening,” Father Smith said.

Msgr. Christopher Connelly, rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Springfield, attended Father Smith’s ordination at the end of May.

“I have known Father James Smith for several years and traveled to Nebraska with Father John Roach, who has known Father Smith even longer, having been the parish priest in Shelburne Falls,” said Msgr. Connelly.

“Father Roach knew James before his conversion to the Catholic faith, and I’m reasonably sure that Father Roach’s priestly example likely was an inspiration to James in his decision to begin studies for priestly ministry,” Msgr. Connelly said.

Father Smith said he hopes to encourage young people considering a vocation and all people on a search for the truth.

“It was a conversation that lasted 10 years. What converted me was not the power of their (his friends’) intellect. The ultimate tool was the grace of God. I became convinced it was a gift of faith that I had received.”

He said he hopes to share that gift of faith in Christ with others in his new role as a priest.

“Christ said that he was the way, which means that through himself, and through the teachings of himself handed down through the apostles, we can come to the Father through him,” he said. “There are many competing voices in the world today seeking to show us the good life, but it is through Christ, and through his representatives, which are contained in the Catholic Church, that we find the truly good life.”