Title: The Unlikely Priest
Author: J. Perry Smith
Smith, J. Perry (2011). The Unlikely Priest: Bullfighter, Soldier, Spy And Then by God’s Grace A Priest. Jacksonville, FL.: Padre Nuestro Books
BX 4705 (estimated)
Date Posted: May 10, 2017
Reviewed by Lorraine Thompson
Father J. Perry Smith, former vicar at Historic St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in St. Augustine, and now Canon for Pastoral Care at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, admits that finally, “I’m just who I want to be.”
The 67-year-old priest was ordained in 2002 after decades of soul-seeking and adventure, according to his book, The Unlikely Priest.
It was Halloween in 1954—a night that changed the path of life for a 10-year-old. While trick or treating near his home in rural West Virginia, Perry Smith and his brother David knocked on the door of a recluse who was reputed to be the richest woman in Logan County. The woman opened the door and before giving out treats asked the boys their names. She then inquired, “Which of you is the oldest?” Perry volunteered that he was 10 and his brother was 8.
“Oh you’re the adopted one,” she informed Perry.
That night and months later, his questions were partially answered, but his mother refused to tell him about his biological parents. “I was no longer who I thought I was,” Smith writes in his book.
It took decades before Smith would find the answers. During those years he attempted to define “who I wanted to be.”
After the death of his father a few years later, his mother and the two boys moved to California. In high school his interests focused on swimming and drama. He also developed a fascination with bull fighting which eventually took him to Mexico on weekends for training.
In his late teens he became interested in medicine and worked in the surgical wing of a California hospital. That job funded his weekend trips to train in Mexico where he would eventually relocate.
In 1964 he was called to his mother’s bedside as she lay near death. Even then she would not disclose his real identity. And she asked him to give up bull fighting.
Doubts of faith
Later, Smith talks about of doubts with his faith and religion.
Influenced by friends and acquaintances, he chose to become a Roman Catholic at a young age.
At age 19, and still struggling to find his identity, after much praying and consultations, Smith chose to live in a Trappist Monastery. At first it was a calming experience, but he soon realized that was not “who he wanted to be”.
Upon leaving the monastery, Smith became eligible for the draft. Instead of waiting for his number to be called up, he chose to join the U.S. Army. That was the start of more than 30 years of government service. After a stint in Vietnam, he eventually served in the CIA and the FBI, and quickly rose in rank and responsibilities.
His assignments took him to many of the world hotspots.
Throughout those years, Smith continued to search for the identity of his birth parents—and most important—why they gave him up for adoption.
In the late 1970s he found his answer and a new family. What happened then is documented in his book.
While on assignment in Central America Smith was shaken by the poverty he witnessed in overpopulated areas. As a Roman Catholic he began questioning the church’s position on birth control. He discussed the subject with a Panamanian Catholic Bishop in 1977. That conversation led Smith to abandon his Catholic faith.
As a dedicated government employee, Smith worked long days away from his wife, Penny, whom he married in 1968. Among his assignments were undercover work in Mexico, and key positions in Central America, Europe and several major U.S. assignments.
After two children and years of moving from place to place, his marriage became irreconcilable and ended in divorce.
Smith writes about becoming cynical of the criminal justice system. He also includes a dissertation that compares the similarities of the Roman Catholic Church, the Mafia and the FBI.
After 31 years in government service, Smith retired. Although he then knew who he was, he still had not found the answer for “who I want to be” until he became involved in the Episcopal Church.
In the early 1990s he embraced the religion with a new vigor and after much prayer, discussion and contemplation, Smith was ordained a deacon. A few years later he entered the seminary in Alexandria, Va.
In 2002, Mr. Smith became Father Smith and was assigned to Baltimore Emmanuel Church where his main duties were to minister to the sick and the dying.
In 2007, Father Smith was named bvcar of Historic St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in St. Augustine where he became a major force in rebuilding the parish.
In 2009, he was named Canon for Pastoral Care at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville where his assignment continues.
“It’s as though God has been my constant companion whether I realized it or not, as he somehow brought me to this life as a priest,” Smith commented.
After decades of searching for his real identity and often feeling alone and abandoned, “It is now obvious to me as well as to many of my friends that the whole of my life has been preparation for the priesthood.”