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Black Catholic seminarian Zachary Smith, SVD to be ordained a priest

The young University of Pittsburgh and Divine Word College alum is expected to serve in Japan to begin his priestly ministry.

Zachary Smith, SVD in October 2023 during his ordination to the transitional diaconate in Chicago. (Tin Vu Trung, SVD/SVD Chicago Province/Facebook)

Zachary Smith, an African-American transitional deacon with the Society of the Divine Word, will be ordained to the priesthood this weekend in Chicago, continuing the order’s long tradition of Black Catholic vocations.

The livestreamed ordination Mass will take place on Saturday, May 25, at the Church of the Holy Family in Chicago, according to an announcement from his alma mater, Gesu Catholic School in Detroit. The sacrament will be administered by Bishop Emeritus J. Terry Steib, SVD of Memphis, one of the nation’s Black prelates.

Smith arrives at ordination after a diaconal yevar spent at Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Parish in Chicago, where he served in the ministry of preaching, baptism, and celebrating weddings for the historic community on the Near North Side.

“We are so proud and happy for him,” the parish said in an April announcement. “It has been a delight to have him engaged in the life of our parish for his internship year.”

A native of the Detroit region, Smith was raised in Oak Park, Michigan, and attended Catholic schools throughout his youth, including Gesu and the University of Detroit Jesuit High, converting to Catholicism during his time at the latter. He received a full-ride scholarship to study microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to Divine Word College in Iowa. 

.​After graduating as valedictorian at DWC in 2015, Smith joined the Society of the Divine Word, one of several Catholic religious orders known for attracting Black vocations in the United States. He professed first vows in 2016.

"I never expected that what I would find God looking through a microscope, and now God invites me to explore the world looking through a bigger lens,” he said in a profile published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall upon his profession of final vows.

Having completed his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, he was ordained to the diaconate in October.

Zachary Smith, SVD receives the Gospel book in October 2023 during his ordination to the transitional diaconate. (Tin Vu Trung, SVD/SVD Chicago Province/Facebook)

For his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), required of all Divine Word seminarians, Smith served overseas in Japan, one of several possible locales for formandi within the order. He is expected to return to the country for his first assignment as a priest.

Among the nation’s roughly 30 U.S.-born Black Catholic seminarians, Smith is one of several set for ordination this year. These included Dcn Greg Lambert, who is scheduled for ordination this weekend as the first Black priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Smith is the third Black American to be ordained in the Divine Word order in recent years, following Fr Carl Gales in 2022 and Fr Edwan "Manie" Manuel last year. The community, founded in 1875 by St. Arnold Janssen, has been active in recruiting Black men to the priesthood since the early 20th century—when it was still frowned upon by U.S. bishops. The order opened the nation’s first Black Catholic seminary, St. Augustine’s, in Mississippi in 1920 and its members make up a fourth of all African-American Catholic bishops in history.

Smith, the latest in a storied legacy, will be ordained a priest on Saturday at 10am CT. He will celebrate his first Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, May 26, at St. Joseph's on Orleans Street in Chicago at 11am. Gesu School in Detroit has also announced that Smith will celebrate a Mass there on Friday, May 31, at 8:15am ET, and a livestreamed liturgy on Sunday, June 2, at Gesu Catholic Church at 10:30am.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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