Monsignor Peter Smith passed away earlier this month after a long illness at the age of 62. A former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and parish priest of St Paul’s in Whiteinch, his life in the Church took him far from his native Cumbernauld. He organised papal visits, served as attaché for the Papal Nuncio to the United Nations, and was an esteemed Canon Lawyer. Yet he always carried Cumbernauld with him and the friendships he made at Our Lady’s High School sustained him throughout his life. Four of those friends share some memories of a much-loved priest.
Mgr Peter Smith, who has sadly passed away after a long illness, was a man of many talents and hidden depths. Both kind and humble he treated everyone with the same respect, be it a parishioner seeking guidance, a friend popping in for a chat or even a phone call with the Holy Father himself.
In many ways, Peter’s life was ruled by uniforms: in his final year at Our Lady’s High School in Cumbernauld, while his contemporaries favoured more casual attire, he wore it proudly until the last day of term. Later he took on the role of Cub Master and swapped his school daywear for Akela’s uniform. And, just a few years after that, he decided to join the priesthood, a vocation that brought a different type of uniform altogether.
What Peter lacked in terms of sporting prowess, he more than made up for with his organisational skills, either as Cub Master or President of the local Dog Club – and this despite not having a dog himself – or as the behind-the-scenes coordinator when Pope Benedict celebrated an open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park. The singer, Susan Boyle, sang at the Mass and afterwards Peter explained to her that Pope Benedict wanted to meet with her after Mass. Susan promptly fainted in his arms! Peter briefly became a YouTube sensation after this incident and often commented that this was the only time he had ever caused a lady to swoon in his arms.
Peter’s organisational skills knew no bounds, whether it was working as attaché to the Papal Nuncio to the United Nations or meticulously arranging the contents of his kitchen cupboards in his home at St Paul the Apostle’s Church in Whiteinch. He was an exceptional human being, and his unique foibles were all part of the great man that he was. Requiescat in Pace, dear friend.
Peter is now at peace in the presence of Our Father, but God was certainly with Peter forty five years ago, in the Campsie Hills during a school outing. Peter, out of the four of us teenage boys taking part in a geology field trip, was the least daring and adventurous, yet somehow managed to find himself precariously close to the edge of a large waterfall. Divine intervention that day helped Peter to defy gravity – much to the relief of us and the teacher!
Peter also had focus and determination, and this helped him to be the first in our school group to pass his driving test. This achievement allowed Peter to earn money from a summer job with the local authority, cutting grass on a ride-on mower. In August 1978, I bumped into Peter during this work and I can vividly remember him telling me that he was dropping out of university in order to study for the priesthood. Normally, this would have been bombshell news had it come from anyone else, but I replied that I was not surprised and asked why it had taken this long for him to make the announcement.
He was the least sports-minded of our friend group, so it was ironic that he should appear on television, celebrating the funeral Mass for the Celtic legend, Tommy Burns, as parish priest in St Mary’s, Calton in 2008. There was a large number of mourners present, many being famous and well-known faces from the world of football . . . however, Peter had no idea who most of them were.
Before retiring from teaching, I approached Peter to provide a character reference for a promoted post in a Catholic secondary school in Glasgow and repeated this request after retirement when I applied to become a schools volunteer with SCIAF. Fortunately, I was very used to Peter’s customary dry humour, and was not unduly concerned when he joked about not being prepared to tell lies in his testimonies!
I am blessed to have known you, and proud to call you a dear friend, Peter.
Peter Smith grew up in the relative idyll of Cumbernauld New Town, an experiment in futuristic council house provision plonked in the middle of the countryside. Young Peter was a true child of the sixties. He didn’t have much by way of worldly goods or luxury items, sported a haircut rather than a hairstyle and didn’t much care either way in any case. He, like many of his pals, wore whatever clothing his mother either made (by home knitting machine or otherwise) or bought, borrowed or passed down. He was the eldest, so his sisters had it worse than he did!
It had been assumed by all that Peter had been forced during these years to wear his school uniform to social functions by his – as we thought then – overbearing mother. Lo and behold it turned out later that this was Peter’s choice and not his poor maligned mum’s. Peter was famous for wearing the same style of anorak in different colours for over 40 years, it just never occurred to him that it should be any other way.
He never lost his horror of fashion’s foibles and looking back perhaps he was right. The only thing different about Peter in all the photographs you see of him through the years is his disappearing “coo’s lick” and shall we say, less than gazelle -like waistline!
Peter’s dress sense and disdain of frippery made him stand out in a crowd at school and his pals formed a protective ring around him. To his pals he may have looked like a young Where’s Wally, but he was our Wally. He was once rolled up in a carpet and put in a school playground bin by his pals for a prank. Yes, his actual pals! He was fine with this because he knew that he was one of us, but woe betide anyone else trying the same jape. This was in Cumbernauld in the seventies, when it seemed okay, and Peter regaled this story himself many times and wore it like a badge of honour.
Peter had a hidden inner strength and steeliness, and was not a man to back down if he thought there was a principle to be defended. His sisters called him The Boss, his school pals called him The Authority, and he was an organiser par excellence. Peter was involved in many organisations and activities growing up, but was most of all involved in the Church, his Church. His friends, not known for their use of kid gloves, would ‘rib him’ as they say in polite society, or as they say in Glasgow, ‘slag him rotten’ and label him the oldest altar boy in town. Did he care? Not a bit. He knew what he was doing and where he was going and just got on with it. Peter was an extraordinary man but he was also extra-ordinary. No drama, no showiness and most of all no judgement.
He loved a good old chinwag, and was ready to laugh out loud whenever a punchline merited it. He tormented his pals and family with outrageous ‘dad jokes’ until the very end, and he will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him.
As an 18-year-old Cub Scout leader Peter convinced several friends to drive with him to scout out a campsite near the town of Millport, on the island of Great Cumbrae.
We drove there in his second-hand Singer Chamois car, a recent purchase for the princely sum of £50. Sadly, the 40-mile trip was too much for it and we arrived at Millport, via the ferry, with a broken water pump and an overheated radiator.
At one point Peter had opened the bonnet to check the damage. For our sins we honked the horn as he viewed the engine’s damage. Peter’s head slammed the underside of the bonnet in fright and for the first and only time we heard him curse.
Peter parked the car on the top of a hill hoping that, on our return from the campsite, the engine had cooled, and he could get it to start once we pushed it down. Unfortunately, this did not work, and we found ourselves at the bottom of the hill standing around a motionless car, with no way to get it to the ferry terminal 2 miles away.
Unperturbed, Peter was convinced that something would turn up. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, a coal lorry stopped and offered to tow the car to get it started. The coalman tied a tow rope to the lorry, and we tied the other end to the car bumper (not the chassis).
The rope was longer than we anticipated, and the lorry disappeared around the corner as we watched the rope unfurl. As the rope finally stretched taut the car lurched forward and to Peter’s horror the bumper and grill flew off the car and followed the rope around the corner.
We pushed the car round the corner, tied the bumper and grill to the roof of the Chamois, and tried again. This time the car started, and Peter gave the coalman the thumbs up. The lorry stopped, catching Peter by surprise, and we drove underneath the lorry only stopping as the taillights threatened to crash through the windscreen. On our third attempt the car started once again, and the lorry slowed down.
At this point Peter overtook the lorry as the coalman looked at us in amazement. We succeeded in snapping the coalman’s tow rope into three pieces and he left shaking his head at our incompetence.
With only 30 minutes to reach the last ferry Peter formulated his final plan. Three of us would push the car until Peter got it started, then he would keep driving to the ferry port, while we ran the final mile and a half and meet him there.
It seemed our only chance and at the fourth time of trying we met with success. With seconds to spare Peter drove the car onto the ferry and we ran on just as the ferry was leaving to head back to Largs. Peter sprang out of the car to congratulate us on our efforts, while reminding us that we still had the task of pushing the car off the ferry.
We were confident that the three of us could push the car off without any problem. It was only when we saw the steep ramp that the cars drove off to get on to the main road that we realized our euphoria was misplaced. We pushed the car as fast as we could off the ferry and onto the ramp but not fast enough to get the engine started.
As the ferry sailed away from the landing area, we were stuck halfway up the ramp. The weight of the car was too much for us to push up the ramp and we simply stood there at a stalemate, holding the car while the sea lapped at our ankles. Peter dashed out the car yelling that he had an idea. He was gone about 10 minutes during which time we debated the ethics of just letting the car roll backwards into the sea.
Suddenly out of nowhere three huge men appeared and began pulling the car up onto the road. Peter had dashed to a local bar and persuaded them to come to our assistance. We left the car in Largs and took the train home, never to see that car again.