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Father Brendan Smith, 73; Orange County Jail Chaplain


For 17 years, Father Brendan Smith would scurry into Orange County jails with his shirttails out, his glasses slipping down his nose and his white hair tossed like a wheat field in a windstorm.

" 'Disheveled' would be the kindest way to put it," said his friend, Father Clif Marquis.

But when Smith put on his priest's alb to celebrate Mass with the inmates, "He would instantly turn into a river of peace," said Ann Hall, a longtime volunteer in the jails. "He was an unusual soul."

When Smith died Friday at age 73, more than 200 get-well letters from inmates lay on his desk. He passed away at the Father Judge Missionary Cenacle in Maryland, where he had been treated for lung cancer since May.

"He was the world's most unlikely person to become a jail chaplain," said Marquis, director of the Catholic Detention Ministry for the Diocese of Orange. "People thought he was too gentle. But his very gentleness was what made him so attractive to prisoners."

Rarely taking a day off, he officiated at up to 30 Masses a week for adults and juveniles in Orange County's 11 detention facilities and heard confessions for a minimum of four hours daily.

"We would catch him at the jail when it's supposed to be his day off," said Leia Smith, a jail chaplain. "He felt those inmates needed him."

Leia Smith said the priest helped "hundreds of thousands of inmates" over 17 years. "For many, he was the only person who ever cared for them."

Inmates believed "Father Brendan" was a good listener. He learned Spanish late in life so he could hear the confessions of Latino immigrants.

"He had the ability to be so completely nonjudgmental and not the least bit flustered when hearing confessions," Marquis said. "When people spoke to him, he made them feel completely accepted."

Smith was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, where his father was a laborer. He attended parochial schools and graduated from St. John's College in Brooklyn. He received a master's degree in theology from the Holy Trinity Seminary in Maryland and a master's degree in English from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained in 1954.

Smith spent his first 30 years as a priest teaching seminary students before coming to the Orange County jails in 1984.

"When I think of him, the image of St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind: externally a simple man but inside he's incredibly tender," Marquis said.

Associates said Smith was too busy looking after inmates to bother taking care of himself, and his cancer was detected late. He worked in the jails until the end of April, after which his health started to quickly deteriorate.

"He was like a lightbulb that burns very brightly before it burns out," Marquis said.

He is survived by his brother, Father James "Bud" Smith of Long Island, New York, who was at his bedside when he died.

A memorial Mass will be held for Smith on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana.

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