First US Twin Priests
MARIO FOX | May 5, 1988
CHICAGO (AP) _ Identical twins Charles and Chester Smith say they want their journey to the priesthood from a Chicago housing project to be an example of hope for young blacks.
″People look toward us as a sign of hope,″ the Rev. Charles Smith in a telephone interview Wednesday night. ″People see us and see men who didn’t have the best things growing up, make some good of their lives and they say, ’Maybe I can do that.‴
The 29-year-old Smiths, believed the first black twins to become Roman Catholic priests in the United States, were ordained together on April 16.
They grew up in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens on the city’s Far South Side, but Chester doesn’t remember the housing project as a bad experience.
″Everyone knew each other and cared for each other. Oh, sure, there were teen pregnancies and drug problems. But generally, it was a good atmosphere,″ he said.
The family – which also included a younger sister, Marcheta, now 26, and a younger brother, Kermit, now 25 – attended Our Lady of the Gardens, run by the Society of the Divine Word religious order.
Encouraged by their mother May and their parish priest, the late Rev. Edward Delaney, the twins attended the order’s high school in East Troy, Wis., and its college near Dubuque, Iowa.
″The father (Delaney), a white man, spoke to us about the need for black men to become leaders in the community,″ Chester said. ″He told us, you should be black priests because your people need you.″
The twins said they arrived independently at their decisions to become priests. Chester was working with black youths in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and Charles was working with the poor in Bolivia when they decided on careers in the church.
The Smiths said they both saw a way through the priesthood to help people make a better life for themselves.
″There is racism, but we are determined enough to transform the church and society and make it right,″ Charles said. ″It it won’t be easy, but we can’t let that stop us. We must struggle.″
Charles is heading for California in July to serve as associate pastor at St. Anthony’s in San Bernardino, in a parish that is predominately black and Hispanic.
″There are whites, too. Maybe I can build a rainbow coalition and show them we can work together,″ he said.
Chester, at St. Anselm on the city’s South Side, will stay behind, hoping to continue his work with young black males.
″I want to work with youth groups, have them study about God and have the church be someplace they can come instead of being in the street dealing with drugs and gangs and messing their lives up,″ he said.
Besides a common passion for social causes, the twins are close friends.
″We do everything together. Charles and I are one in a sense. We are an extension of each other. He’s my best friend,″ Chester said.
The bearded Smith brothers often joke about who is more handsome.
″I look better than him,″ Chester said.
″He’s always been the best story-teller in the family,″ responded brother Charles. ″I’m much better looking.″