This article is part of a series of profiles about the Province’s retired friars. It features what the are doing now, a look back at their ministerial lives as friars and how, even in retirement, they are making a difference in their communities through their activities and interests.
LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. – The main character in the inspirational Christmas movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has nothing on Ignatius Smith, OFM.
In a phone interview from his residence at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary, where he lives in retirement, Ignatius didn’t hesitate for even a split second when asked what he would say to a group of novices discerning a Franciscan vocation with Holy Name Province.
“It’s a wonderful life!” Ignatius bellowed with enthusiasm. “That’s what I would tell them. My Franciscan ministry and the Province has been, and continues to be, a wonderful life for me.”
That wonderful ministry life has spanned nearly seven decades, calling him to serve in several roles in vastly distinct communities around the globe – as a missionary at the Province missions in South America, as chaplain on an illustrious U.S. Naval warship, and as pastor of a rural parish in Upstate New York.
The most rewarding part of his journey, says Ignatius, has been the thousands of people encountered along the way.
“It’s always about the people, meeting them wherever they are in their life – during good times, and in their difficulties and struggles,” said the Washington, D.C., native. “I have enjoyed being with people in every place where ministry has called. My priesthood has been most important to me. Everything I do is always centered in my priesthood.”
Although living in retirement, this soon-to-be nonagenarian remains active in ministry, still responding to where he is needed by serving as chaplain to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He celebrates Mass daily in their chapel at a nearby school for special needs children.
After his ordination to the priesthood in September 1956, he spent less than a year at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, before being assigned to the Province missions in Brazil in what was supposed to be a three-year assignment. He remained there performing missionary work for more than a decade.
Although he taught catechism to adults and children and provided pastoral and sacramental ministry at the main parish church and its dozen satellite chapels – some of which were located in areas so remote that they could only be accessed by horseback – Ignatius recalled how learning became a two-way street.
“I went there thinking that I was going to teach the people – which I did – but I never expected to learn so much. The people I ministered taught me how to be human. They led a simple life and worked hard just for basic things,” said Ignatius. “They were people who had so little in terms of material things, but how great a people they were because faith and family were central in their lives. And that’s all they needed.”
You’re in the Navy Now
Less than a year after returning to the States, Ignatius joined the Navy – sort of. The Province enlisted him to serve three years as a U.S. Navy chaplain.
“Back then, the Province and other religious orders provided chaplains to serve in the military,” he explained.
He accepted the assignment and shipped off to Newport, Rhode Island, to undergo training in the Navy’s chaplain division. It was supposed to be a three-year stint – although he had heard that before when he was on his way to Brazil (and those three years turned into more than 10 in the missions).
His three-year commission as a Navy chaplain turned into a 23-year assignment. For some, that would have been a second career. For Ignatius, however, it’s what he signed up for as a Franciscan friar. He embraced this unique opportunity to serve the people where he was needed, even though it meant not living in fraternity with his friar brothers. He quickly assimilated into a new fraternity – the Navy.
One of his first assignments as Navy chaplain was serving as a member of the pre-commissioning crew of the supercarrier USS Nimitz – at the time, the crown jewel of the United States Navy. The Nimitz was showcased across the globe, making the rounds to international destinations. Often docked in Naples, Italy, Ignatius would take advantage of the opportunity to bring small groups of sailors on day-long pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi.
“I’d like to think it kept them out of the bars – and out of trouble,” said Ignatius, who celebrated daily Mass in the ship’s chapel and Sunday Mass on the flight deck. “The ship was like a floating parish. I provided pastoral counsel and the sacraments. Being a chaplain is a ministry of presence. I was there for everyone.”
On weekdays, he wore his formal Naval uniform, but on weekends he wore his Franciscan habit because he found that the sailors were more comfortable and open to spiritual counsel and talking about their problems when he was dressed as a friar.
“They were just more relaxed talking to someone in a religious habit rather than a Naval uniform. The habit was my identity. I wasn’t a military man, but rather a priest who was serving in the military,” said Ignatius, who often hosted social gatherings for the sailors under the flight deck – recalling a New Year’s Eve celebration where even he couldn’t stop someone from spiking the punch.
During the course of his more than two decades as Navy chaplain, he also ministered to the infirm at the Naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, and the hospital ship USS Sanctuary in California – and to enlisted active-duty members in places like Okinawa, Japan, and Guantanamo Bay at the southeastern end of Cuba.
He reminisced about walking the perimeter every night at Guantanamo, “delivering Kool-Aid, doughnuts, prayers, and a blessing” to the Marines who were patrolling the border. Ignatius also served in ministry at Marine Corps installations, including the Quantico base near Triangle, Virginia, where he would often spend time at St. Francis of Assisi, the parish staffed by Province friars.
During his travels, particularly when stationed on the Nimitz while docked at ports in Europe and Asia, he would drop in for visits at Franciscan friaries. “The friars were always warm and welcoming so I always felt the fraternal connection,” Ignatius said.
‘Mayor’ of Callicoon
When he left the Navy in 1992, he returned to parish ministry at St. Anne’s in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and later at St. Camillus in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was on the move again when in 1995 Ignatius was appointed pastor of Holy Cross, a rural parish in the small town of Callicoon, nestled in the foothills of the Catskills in Sullivan County, New York.
Like his other ministries, he quickly became part of the fabric of the broader community, making the Franciscan presence felt in collaborative outreach efforts between the parish and other religious denominations, providing Thanksgiving meals to the forgotten, and Christmas baskets of food and gifts to financially struggling families.
His presence was so strong in the community, according to John O’Connor, OFM, that Ignatius became known to the locals as the unofficial mayor of Callicoon. When John visited the parish as a member of the Provincial Council, and later as a provincial minister, Ignatius would take him for lunch or dinner to local restaurants.
“Whether we drove through the village, or walked into a café or restaurant, everyone knew Ignatius as the beloved and friendly friar in the habit,” said John, who is pastor at St. Francis Parish in Triangle. “I always enjoy listening to his insights about people and humanity. He has an exceptional talent of relating to people. His humble, unassuming approach is a special gift. He has an engaging way of affirming everyone he encounters, letting them know they are special in God’s eyes. When I think about Ignatius, I think of St. Francis’s famous exhortation to the friars – ‘Preach the Gospel always, if necessary use words.”
His 17-year marathon at Holy Cross came to an end in 2012 when he was assigned to St. Anthony Friary in Butler, New Jersey. In 2013, he was on the move again when he was appointed guardian and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Anderson, South Carolina. He was reassigned to the friary on the Siena College campus in summer 2015 to serve at St. Francis Chapel, the Province’s mall ministry in nearby Colonie, where he celebrated Mass and heard confessions. Although he officially retired in 2019, he has plenty to keep him active at the St. Bernardine Friary.
Besides fielding calls from the many sailors that have continued to stay in contact as a result of the friendships developed during the 23 years he served as Navy chaplain – “I still call them kids, but almost all of them are grandfathers now,” he says – Ignatius toils in the flower and vegetable garden behind the friary, where this summer he grew a bounty of carrots, beets, lettuce, green beans, broccoli and, of course, tomatoes.
“The Sisters (of the Presentation) gave me the plants, and my friends from Callicoon brought me good local fertilizer. I also do a lot of groundskeeping around the friary. I don’t like just sitting around, so it keeps me active,” said Ignatius, who says he gets his green thumb from the summers spent on his grandparents’ farm in southern Maryland.
Franciscans All Day, Every Day
His youth played a major role in finding the Franciscans.
“Actually, they found me,” says Ignatius, who grew up in northeast Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, where his family would attend Mass, novenas, and Holy Week and other holiday services. “The monastery fence separated my house and the Franciscans. The Franciscan influence was staring me in the face all day, every day.”
When he was a high school student, he would take a shortcut across the monastery lawn every day on his way to a girlfriend’s house. “The friars would ask, ‘Hey kid, where you are going?’ When I told them, they would encourage me to consider a Franciscan vocation,” Ignatius said. “I hadn’t committed to college after high school graduation. So after some convincing by the friars, I hopped on a train from Newark, New Jersey, to their school in Callicoon – still not very enthusiastic about my decision. In fact, when I arrived, I immediately thought – this isn’t for me.”
Ignatius was received into the novitiate in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1950 and made his first profession one year later. He professed his final vows in 1954 at Christ the King Seminary in Allegany, New York, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956 in his hometown of D.C.
Although 40 years of his ministerial life have been spent abroad or not living in community, Ignatius said the Province and the friars have always been there for him.
“I have always felt fraternity and have always felt like a member of the Province no matter where I was traveling. The friars always let me know that I was part of the fraternity – even if I was wearing a different uniform,” he said. “In fact, when I was serving as Navy chaplain, a provincial minister once quipped in a phone call that he had met every friar in the Province – except me!”
For Ignatius, the most unique aspect of being a Franciscan is the association with St. Francis of Assisi.
“Francis had an ideal. But even as his group expanded, he always stayed focused on this ideal,” said Ignatius. “The Francis ideal is putting God first in our lives and accepting what comes along. So often we find ourselves going up one street and then going down another. Acceptance is a great thing.”
— Stephen Mangione is a regular contributor to HNP Today.
Franciscan Journey Essay by Ignatius Smith, OFM – HNP.org
“50 Years Later, Priests Are Still Together” – Sept. 12, 2006, Sullivan County Democrat