This week started off with that glorious day at Holy Dormition Monastery. But it wrapped up with a dreaded, but not surprising, email announcing the death of the beloved Fr. George Smith.
A few weeks ago, while I was on vacation and standing next to my mom and grandma in St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Goshen, Fr. Matthew announced Fr. George had taken a turn for the worse–his cancer had returned and he was becoming very ill very quickly. I made up my mind to send him a note, thanking him for all he had done for me personally. I bought the card on Wednesday. He died Thursday night.
I never got to tell him how much he meant to me. And the news of his death hit me harder than I thought it would yesterday, making me much more upset and irritable than I know Fr. George would have liked. But I’ll do better with it today and I am going to tell you why that wonderful little priest meant so much to me and to nearly every Orthodox Christian in the northern half of the state.
Fr. George had a wonderful career prior to becoming a priest. He retired from the Fort Wayne Police Department, after years as an officer and bomb technician. I am sure that his friendly and unflappable personality served him well in both of those tasks. His wife, Charlotte, is equally warm, and in contrast to someone like me, has never been known to say a cross word about anyone or anything.
Fr. George never had his own parish, instead being content to serve as a “supply priest” for the Antiochian Orthodox Church’s Midwest Diocese. He attended, officially, St. John Chrysostom’s, which was where I first attended and later joined. He was one of the founding members of St. Mary’s before that.
He was at St. John’s when it fell apart, less than a year after my chrismation. When my friends and fellow parishioners scattered to the wind, some moving and others starting their own “orthodox” church, Fr. George and Charlotte worried about what would become of me.
I too left the church, even not attending anywhere for a few months. I eventually wandered into the Greek church, out of some unfounded fear of the then-priest at St. Nicholas and his reaction to the split at St. John’s. Nearly two years later I drug myself to a Theophany service on a snowy bridge over the lunch hour. I had grown weary with life at the Greek-language Holy Trinity Church, finding it hard to connect with the service and the people.
There, standing in the snow, in his vestments and earmuffs was Fr. George. Both he and Charlotte wrapped their arms around me, giving me a huge hug.
We’ve been praying for you for these past years. We worried you would leave Orthodoxy because of what happened. You were so new to the faith.
I nearly did, I told them. But I just couldn’t.
Oh, my dear, we have just prayed so much for you, they said again. You should go to St. Nicholas where they speak English. It will be OK.
I took their advice and went to St. Nicholas, which unbeknownst to me was in the midst of its own “unpleasantness.” About 18 months later, the priest there left to go back into the military full time as a chaplain and my beloved Fr. George served as our priest for a year until Fr. Andrew came.
Fr. George was never the most polished priest, and never was he showy. He quietly served the Liturgy, giving simple homilies and practical advice during confessions. There was that one time he set the carpet on fire during Pascha with the incense, but that was an outlier.
He fit well in our altar, looking just like the icon of St. Nicholas mounted in the front of our church. And whenever I saw him up there, I always felt so spiritually safe. I always believed it would be OK. Anytime I heard his voice lifted in prayer, I always knew I, and all his other little sheep, were on his mind and heart as he spoke to our Lord.
I will miss him so much–his twinkling eyes and quick laugh. But I know, and this is reason #129 why I love Orthodoxy, that his prayers for me will continue now as he has gone just beyond that thin veil that separates “here” from “THERE.” I will light a candle for him on Sunday, and probably a few other candles in the weeks and months ahead. I will ask God to take good care of His faithful servant, the Archpriest Geroge, because he meant so much to us here and we will miss him. May He grant him rest where the saints repose.
I know that his legacy, his faithful work, continues on here. It continues on in me every time I come into church. It continues in my sister and her husband, Orthodox now three years. That would have been less likely to happen had I grown frustrated and left the faith. It continues now with my mother and grandmother, singing and praying at St. Mary’s, a church he helped to found.
Vechnya Pamnyat! May his memory be eternal!