Pastoral associate at St. John XXIII University Parish served Diocese of Knoxville for 25 years
By Bill Brewer
Dr. Ruth Queen Smith, who has ministered to the faith community at St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center as a pastoral associate and Bible study leader, retired on Pentecost Sunday after 25 years of service.
Dr. Smith has been a popular staff member at St. John XXIII and is renowned throughout the Diocese of Knoxville and around the country for her Bible study programs and as a speaker on faith-based topics.
On her last day as pastoral associate May 15, Dr. Smith was greeted by a long line of well-wishers during a luncheon in her honor following the 11:15 a.m. Mass.
Father Rich Andre, CSP, former associate pastor of St. John XXIII who became associate pastor of St. Austin Parish in Austin, Texas, on July 1, spoke of Dr. Smith and her contribution to St. John XXIII and the diocese during his homily. And a farewell message was played for her from Father Eric Andrews, CSP, former pastor of St. John XXIII who now is president of the Paulist Fathers, thanking her for her service.
“Today, Ruth wraps up 25 years of ministry to the people of St. John XXIII Parish. But this is not a day to sit back in amazement at all the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given Ruth. Each of us has received abundant gifts from the Holy Spirit. If we are to truly honor Ruth Queen Smith, we must understand the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given us, and then stretch ourselves to use them in new and exciting ways,” Father Andre said.
In his homily about the body of Christ and how we all are called to make up His Church, Father Andre described how he first met Dr. Smith a decade ago at a meeting in Queens, N.Y., prior to becoming a Paulist priest.
“She was remarkable; poised, articulate, filled with insight. Because of where I was sitting, I heard her voice and her ideas before I saw how different she looked from everyone else in the room. At a meeting dominated by white-haired Catholic priests, she definitely stood out: a visually impaired African American woman. Two years later, when I was tasked with organizing the liturgies for the 150th anniversary of the Paulists in Washington, D.C., and we were looking for someone to proclaim this very message from Paul. I knew that this was the woman to invite,” Father Andre said.
He went on to explain how the Holy Spirit called on Ruth Queen Smith to be an evangelist at an early age because she was proclaiming the Gospel at the age of 9. Since then, she has led Bible studies across the country, and in recent months she was leading at least eight Bible-study groups a week in at least three parishes, many times to large groups.
“Ruth has also challenged us that we have the gifts to be evangelists, too. All you have to be able to do, she says, is to tell your story. You are the expert on your story. When you tell people about your life, no one is ever going to say that you’re telling it wrong,” he said. “Like everyone, Ruth’s journey has taken many twists and turns along the way. As she began to lose her sight and faced the reality of several other medical conditions, I can imagine that most other people – even people of great faith – would be overcome by despair. But Ruth found ways forward.”
Dr. Smith first moved to Knoxville in 1991 when she enrolled in the University of Tennessee to pursue an advanced degree. At the time, she asked Father Stan MacNevin, CSP, then-pastor of John XXIII University Parish, how she could best use her gifts. He encouraged her to lead a Bible study.
“And that was the beginning of a 25-year love affair between Ruth Queen Smith and the Catholic community of East Tennessee,” Father Andre said. “Ruth is just one small part of the Body of Christ, but she has blessed so many people in so many different ways. I don’t think it is that the Holy Spirit has given her more gifts than others. I think she has simply been willing to make the maximum use of the gifts she’s been given.”
Father Andre’s message was delivered to a full church at St. John XXIII as parishioners took part in one of the last campus Masses attended by Dr. Smith, who greeted nearly everyone during the post-Mass farewell luncheon.
Father Andre described how his early exposure to Dr. Smith grew into deeper, longer-term relationship that, through divine intervention, led them to reconnect in the Diocese of Knoxville at St. John XXIII.
“This may be very egotistical of me, but of all the people who have been blessed by Ruth, I think I am among the luckiest. Almost every time Ruth has crossed the minefield of papers on my office floor to sit and talk with me, tears have welled up in my eyes,” Father Andre said. “As a woman devoted to the spirituality of Isaac Hecker and the Paulist Fathers, Ruth has prayed for me every day for decades, even before the Holy Spirit invited me to consider being a Paulist priest.
“I am so honored that she traveled to New York to proclaim the first reading at my priesthood ordination. And the passage? It was Isaiah declaring, ‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ I have taken six classes on Scripture and three classes on preaching, but the person who has most helped the Scriptures come alive for me is Dr. Ruth Queen Smith. The woman who is blind has done the most to help me see.”
Dr. Smith said that when she first decided to retire, it was both a happy and sad moment for her. She felt joy at the opportunity to live with her sister in Nashville, but she also was saddened to be leaving the St. John XXIII parish.
“Think of this as another step,” she told parishioners, noting that the world is full of new possibilities under Pope Francis. “When you think about how the pope is reconsidering things such as deacons (women deacons) and things of that nature, who knows about my coming back.”
She then gave them this blessing:
“Lord, we give thanks for your goodness. We think of the people who are hungry, and we have food. We think of the people who struggle with problems that are tough that You help manage in life. But we know that You are the God of plenty, and we thank you for that.”
Father Andrews delivered a personal message to Dr. Smith via videotape that echoed Father Andre’s feelings on her impact on St. John XXIII and the diocese.
“I just want to say thanks for all that you have given to the people and the community of Knoxville, and especially at St. John XXIII, your tireless missionary activities. You are the finest Paulist regional minister we’ve ever had. You have been there for so many people in good times and bad. And now we are here for you. … I’m sending you all of my love, and all of my prayers, and all of my best wishes. You have given so much to me personally, and taught me to be a brave disciple of Jesus Christ. You have taught me how to love the Bible. You have taught me how to care for people in a way that I will not forget. You also have taught me how we are to be churched together,” Father Andrews said, before breaking into his signature a cappella rendition of Happy Trails.
Among the many who lined up inside St. John XXIII to wish Dr. Smith farewell were University of Tennessee junior David Hamilton, a graduate of Knoxville Catholic High School, and UT senior Keagan McCoy, a Knoxville West High graduate.
“I went through confirmation my senior year of high school with her. She showed us the truth of the Catholic Church. She has inspired me in my faith and she continues to do that,” Ms. McCoy said.
Mr. Hamilton has been inspired by Dr. Smith’s presence, the way she presents herself when leading groups.
“She has a great wisdom about her. She has that grace of gentleness like Mary,” he said.
Sister Albertine Paulus, RSM, and Peg Hart, who were among those offering best wishes to Dr. Smith, have known her for more than 30 years.
They recalled her teaching ministry formation for the Diocese of Nashville, calling her “a very gifted lady” who was very involved in diocesan outreach.
“She was on the ball,” Sister Albertine said, prompting Ms. Hart to add, “She has always been on the ball and on fire.”
“When Ruth is coming to do a Bible study, the people show up,” Sister Albertine said. “This parish will miss her terribly. She has been a stable presence as the Paulist priests there move on to new assignments.” ■