In 20 years as pastor of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Thomas W. Smith again and again found the words to console the depressed, the dying and the bereaved among his loyal parishioners in the rural Baltimore County com- munity of Bradshaw.
But even as he reached out to others, Father Smith himself was tormented by a private despair that he hid from his closest friends. Early Saturday, in his living room in the brick rectory beside the old stone church, he put a 12-gauge shotgun to his head and fired.
With the body, which was discovered at 10 a.m. Saturday by Associate Pastor John A. Dietzenbach, police found a note suggesting that Father Smith was despondent over the death of his mother and was particularly disturbed he was not with her at the moment she died in December. A framed photograph of his mother with himself as a child lay on the floor nearby.
That was something of an explanation, but it left his friends and colleagues still baffled and distraught.
"It just isn't making sense," said Mary Jo Button who, with her husband, William, chairs the parish council this year. "I feel like a member of my family has committed suicide and I don't know why."
"It was just beyond our comprehension. It was totally out of character," said Gerry Kellner, a church board member and close friend of the pastor. Father Smith was to join Mr. Kellner's family Saturday on a long-planned trip to Disney World in Florida.
Yesterday, as they packed the church for five morning Masses, tearful parishioners struggled to accept the suicide of this 68-year-old dynamo of a priest, who bicycled everywhere in his unmistakable beret, threw himself into softball at church gatherings, and devoured the latest thrillers of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.
Among the Bible readings set for Aug. 22, they heard one from Romans that seemed to many to capture the mystery of the occasion: "How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable his judgments, how unknowable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?"
Father Smith had overseen the rebuilding of the church after two devastating fires and held the church together after a bruising episode in which an assistant pastor was convicted of sexually molesting a teen-age boy. Through it all, he had been a strong and cheerful leader, a bulwark for others, never seeming to require support himself.
"You could go to him with anything, and he knew just what to say to make you feel better," said Ed Sofsky, an usher for 20 years. As Mr. Sofsky's aunt lay dying at home, Father Smith brought Communion to her every Friday for weeks, he said.
Bernice Murphy recalled yesterday how Father Smith had come to her home to confirm her brain-damaged son. When her husband, a painter, was out of work, Father Smith quietly put the word out to find him some jobs.
"He was a great good Samaritan," she said.
Death of his mother
It was true that the death of his mother had shaken the priest deeply, Mr. Kellner said. An only child, Father Smith had cared for her through several years of failing health, and they were very close.
But he presided at her funeral, and as the months passed friends noticed no more than understandable grief at the loss of a loved one. Lately, he'd seemed particularly cheerful, said Mr. Kellner, who last talked to him Thursday.
"He was extremely upbeat, looking forward to the vacation and talking about where we'd go next year," Mr. Kellner said.
Bishop William C. Newman, who supervises St. Stephen and 64 other Roman Catholic churches in the eastern vicariate of the Baltimore Archdiocese, had noticed nothing wrong. He had known Father Smith since the two were seminarians together in Baltimore in the 1940s, and he visited St. Stephen regularly.
"I found the same enthusiasm, the same energy and the same love for people. He knew his people and would do anything to serve them," said Bishop Newman, who spoke at each Mass yesterday to inform worshipers of Father Smith's death.
Born in Baltimore in 1924, Thomas William Smith attended St. Dominic's School in Hamilton and Loyola High School before completing St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park with degrees in philosophy and theology, said Baltimore Archdiocese spokesman Rob Rehg.
After ordination in 1950, he served as assistant pastor for two years at St. Jane Frances Church in Riviera Beach and for 10 years at St. Michael's Church in Overlea. In 1962, he was appointed Advocate of Tribunal in the Baltimore Archdiocese, a post in which he assisted people seeking marriage annulments.
In 1970, he became pastor of Most Precious Blood Church in East Baltimore, which he left for St. Stephen as pastor in 1973.
The first of the two fires hit within months of his arrival, destroying much of the interior of the church. In the mid-1970s, Christmas-week burglaries and vandalism occurred in two successive years, and certain signs left by the culprits led Father Smith to believe they were members of a Satanic sect.