Lumen Gentium Award Winner Profile

Former House Speaker ‘staunch defender’ of life

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Over the next several weeks, Rhode Island Catholic will feature profiles of the 15 winners in the 10 categories of the diocese’s 2016 Lumen Gentium Awards. The honorees will be awarded during a dinner at Twin River Event Center in Lincoln on Wednesday, May 18. Guests wishing to purchase tickets to the dinner — whose proceeds will benefit St. Martin de Porres Multi-Purpose Center and Fruit Hill Day Care for Seniors — are asked to register online at www.dioceseofprovidence.org/lumen-gentium-awards. For any questions about the event, please call 401-277-2121.

PROVIDENCE — The Honorable Matthew J. Smith served as Speaker of the R.I. House of Representatives from 1980-1988 and always brought his unwavering Catholic faith to the State House, said Father Bernard Healey, who nominated the Speaker for a Lumen Gentium Award in Public Service.

“His leadership with such important legislation as the state budget always reflected a need to help those less fortunate,” said Father Healey, who serves as governmental liaison for the Diocese of Providence and pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, East Greenwich. He added that Speaker Smith has always been a “staunch defender” of assistance to the poor, elderly, developmentally disabled and others who required help.

“While serving in the R.I. House of Representatives, Mr. Smith always exhibited personal integrity, courage and leadership reflecting his Catholic faith,” said Father Healey. “He continued his advocacy for human service programs and used his position to prevent legislation from passing that was in opposite moral teaching of the Church. No better example can be shown by his unwavering and steadfast defense of the unborn.”

After learning that he would be honored this year with a Lumen Gentium award, Smith couldn’t believe it.

“I was flabbergasted. I never thought I would receive anything like that,” he said. “You don’t seek these kinds of things. I am quite happy about it.”

Smith has served on the Board of the St. Joseph Hospital Corporation, has taught religious education classes at St. Augustine Church, his Providence parish where he continues to serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

Smith credits his parents, immigrants from Ireland, for their devout faith that had such a profound impact on him.

“They were very strong in the faith, especially my mother,” he said. “She was very pious.”

Attending Catholic schools throughout his life, including LaSalle Academy and Notre Dame, Smith shared that the example of the Dominicans at Providence College helped inspire him to become involved in public service.

“Aside from being great theologians, they were very interested in the public square,” said Smith. “Looking back it is easy to see the value of Catholic education. They taught values, right from wrong and the importance of prayer.”

The speaker added that being involved in CYO at the Father Roger Marot Center also left a lasting impression on him. It was there that he met his wife and found strong Catholic fellowship in the vibrant organization.

He shared that when he became speaker he saw an opportunity to help the church and the diocese.

“Certain things were just a part of you,” said Smith, who was well-known for wearing the two small feet pin on his lapel, publicly, and not quietly, bearing “Christ’s light to the nations.”

“You knew abortion was wrong,” he said. “If you practiced your faith, how could you call it humane or medicine? You can’t capitulate to what is popular, you’ve got to hold on to your views. There’s no way you can budge or look the other way.”

Father Healey said that although some pro-life legislation was struck down by the courts, Smith was never discouraged in his commitment to the cause of life.

“Speaker Smith was never shy about his faith and the teachings of the church.”