Smith family photos
The future bishop as an infant with his grandfather and mother.
Smith family photos
The future bishop as an infant with his grandfather and mother.
The first member of my family on either side arrived in South Africa in 1688. The bulk of my ancestors arrived in the early 1800s. Overall, if you go back far enough, I am overwhelmingly Scottish-Irish. On my father’s side, intermarriage with the Irish was what brought the family to Catholicism.

My father was from a well-known Pietermaritzburg family. His father and his uncles were lawyers. He followed in their footsteps and later became the senior partner at the family law firm. He had two older sisters.

My mother is one of two children, having a younger sister. Both lost a parent when teenagers.

My father’s mother died when he was about 18 and my mother’s father died when she was in her early teens.

My mother had a history degree, and later when we children were all older, she went back to university studying part time and got a master's degree in library science.

Later, she became a university archivist, and was one of the founders of the Alan Paton Center (, and currently volunteers at the Archbishop Denis Hurley archives at St Joseph Seminary.

Interesting fact: In the 1990s my mother was called on as a consultant when the remake of Cry The Beloved Country was filmed and met and worked with James Earl Jones.

My parents married in 1957. Over the next 10 years they had six children, four boys and two girls. I am the eldest of the children. All six of us went into different professions. All five of my siblings are married and have families. I have 11 nephews and nieces ranging from the oldest, a niece, at university, to the youngest, a nephew, having just celebrated his eighth birthday. Unfortunately, I have had very little interaction with them over the years due to us being separated by such vast distances. Today the six of us are spread out over four continents, two in South Africa, two in the United States, one in Britain and one in Colombia.

Interesting fact: It usually costs more than $2,000 for a round-trip plane ticket to South Africa from Portland. In addition, the quickest way to travel takes about 36 to 40 hours of which 22 to 24 hours are spent in aircraft. There is a nonstop flight in the journey that takes almost 16 hours, mostly over the ocean.

In July 2012 my father died unexpectedly from the combination of an infection that doctors were never able to diagnose, and from a virulent form of pneumonia. My mother continues to live in their retirement home in Howick, South Africa. It is part of a nature conservancy with animals, so periodically she will see zebras, impala, blesbok (a South African antelope), warthogs and wildebeest close by.

My parents were very strong Catholics and raised us in the faith. We all went to Mass as a family every week and confession once a month. All of us boys were altar servers for many years. As a family, we usually had supper together which involved sharing about our day and concluding with a reading and reflection from scripture, praying a decade of the rosary together and concluding with personal intentions and prayers. My mother was a convert, and when we were little children she would often read us Bible stories before we would go to bed. My parents were involved with Marriage Encounter for many years. During my later university years I became a lector. I was also heavily involved with the Catholic Students Society at my university.

Interesting fact: My father had read the Bible completely through, cover to cover, seven times, and was close to completing his eighth time through when he died. He also read the Imitation of Christ numerous times.

My father always had a strong concern for the poor and suffering. He would always remind us “There but for the grace of God go I." He joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society as a young man and had been an active Vincentian for 60 years at the time of his death. As children he would often take us on visits so that we would be aware of the suffering of others, grateful for what we had, and have generous hearts. My mother joined him in this work and became regional coordinator for several years.

She still continues to serve as a Vincentian. Since my father’s death there have been two very large financial gifts given to the Society for its work in honor of him and another deceased Vincentian.

My parents always encouraged us to do our best. They also urged us to find out what we loved and to pursue those things. We all have done that in our careers and in our other pursuits and interests. All six of us children went into professions, and each into a different one.

As children we did all kinds of things for fun, some of which now seem wild. We had just about every pet you could imagine over the years. They included dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, tropical fish, a macaw, parrots, finches, and snakes. We had several cages of snakes, most of which were caught by two of my brothers. My dad would take us hunting and taught us to shoot. He also was a good fisherman and taught us how to fish. As we usually vacationed at the coast we had plenty of opportunities. I still remember the first fish I caught. I was about 8-years-old at the time and we were at Port Edward and I pulled in a sizable Rock Cod.

I was raised in South Africa during the Apartheid era. At first as children you accept things as they are. Later I would hear my parents expressing their opinion and realize something was amiss. As Catholics in South Africa it was not an easy road during this time. The Church strongly opposed the government, and officials responded by making things very difficult for the Church. Some priests and Religious were deported, others jailed. The Catholic Church was viewed as one of the four great dangers to the Apartheid regime. Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, a relative, led the Church during this time and was tireless in criticizing the government for its oppressive racial policies. Later, as we got to know more, we learned that he was one of the bishops at Vatican II and had input on a couple of the final documents. We just knew him as Uncle Denis. He was an uncle by marriage as his oldest brother had married my father’s oldest sister. The government authorities harassed and intimidated them to the point that they emigrated to Australia as a family. They all remain there to this day.

Archbishop Hurley served as bishop for 45 years, being appointed just before the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power, and remaining in office to see them swept aside and Nelson Mandela elected as president of a free South Africa.

Both my parents took the time to educate us in good manners, and for us boys, teaching us what it meant to be gentlemen. They instilled in us the importance of treating others well and being respectful. Coming from a large family, they also helped us learn how to share things with one another, play together, and to look out for one another. I remember my father telling us that even though we might have squabbles among us as children, we should always stand up for one another outside of the home, especially for our mother and sisters.  

The most amazing accomplishment of my family belongs to my mother. She was married at 21, gave birth to me before she was 22, and had six children by the time she was 30. When my youngest sister was about eight my mother went back to university part time and proceeded to get her library science degree. She did all this while raising six children! I think most us are still somewhat in awe of how she did it.

She happily tells us that it didn’t make that much difference after the third child as we kept each other company and the older ones liked to teach the younger ones things. My siblings who are all parents don’t swallow that line so easily, especially as they reflect on their own experiences as parents.

As a child I loved reading and learning. I would get several books from the library every two or three weeks. I read nonfiction mostly, usually history, geography, or sports. I would wake up early in the morning and read until we all got up. It fed my interest in many things as well as helping my language skills. Today, I use the internet in a similar way as it is like having the library at your fingertips.

As a teenager I was somewhat shy and introverted. That really is true even though most folks won’t believe me when I tell them that today. I was also subject to some very intense bullying in the later years of grade school. It was a very difficult time in my life but having a good family life more than made up for it. It taught me a lot about myself and that I could endure hardship and rejection. Later, my period of military conscription also gave me a lot of confidence in facing life.

My life changed as a result of something like a spiritual conversion that I had when I was 20 and at university. I was a practicing Catholic but this had a dramatic impact on my faith. I encountered God as a vivid living being who loved me and wanted to be directly involved in my life. It began a journey which brought me to where I am today. I would never have dreamed I would end up here or doing this. I had planned to become a lawyer, join my father’s law firm, get married and have a large family, and live in South Africa. God wanted me to consider other things. It happened slowly over time, but as one decision led to another I ended up visiting the U.S. then joining the People of Praise community I am part of. That was more than 31 years ago.

It was not as easy as people think for me to emigrate to the U.S. I had to jump through a lot of legal and procedural hoops, and was constantly dealing with ever lengthening timelines. At one point things looked rather bleak, but then help came from a referral by someone who years later became the governor of Indiana. It took me almost five years to get a green card (permanent residency). During that time I could not leave the U.S. As a result I missed the weddings of three of my siblings and the funeral of my grandmother. On one occasion I was pulled out of line at the airport entering the U.S. and questioned and threatened with being sent back. I sympathize with other immigrants who have to deal with all the challenges they face. I had it a lot easier than some as the language issue was not that serious for me. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen here in Portland in 1997.