Last month, the Catholic New York community lost a great spirit of Vatican II: Jeannie Stapleton Smith, longtime director of development at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, special patron of seminarians and priests, and dynamic promoter of all things Catholic in this corner of the global church. Her death must not pass unremarked.
For two decades, even before and beyond her official term at Dunwoodie (1999-2012) working on fund-raising and media relations, Jeannie exercised a remarkable influence on seminarians and new priests. Her family had lost her son Timothy to leukemia in 1994. Just 17 when he died, Timmy had decided to study for the priesthood. It seemed to me, working with Jeannie at Dunwoodie, that she nurtured young men like Timmy so they could live out his vocation. In doing so, she found hers as a mentor.
Jeannie nurtured more than just seminarians. She sought out the gifts lying within priests and bishops, laywomen and men, married and single, and then shoved them, gently but firmly, toward a higher purpose. She was generous with her contacts, not so much to promote a particular person but the message they had for the Church, be it in Church history, scripture or spirituality.
Jeannie was a true daughter of Vatican II. She was grounded and well versed in the Church’s tradition but never afraid to push the envelope to embrace technologies and ideas. Her eyes were wide open to problems but her focus was on solutions, improvements and new ways to serve. She blew like the Holy Spirit. You don’t see that wind, but you felt her effects. She was both prophet and pilgrim of Vatican II and she was more interested in making you a trailblazer than being one herself, even as she did just exactly that.
Many Catholic New Yorkers who never knew Jeannie were affected by her: a higher profile for Dunwoodie, sounder financial footing and a hand in planning Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the seminary in 2008. When a solid representative of Church teaching appeared on local or even national TV, radio or newspapers, it’s a good bet Jeannie had a hand in placing that voice. In my own case, I owe much of my start as a public Church historian to her encouragement, enthusiasm, confidence and connections with the media. She helped me find my vocation and cultivated my ministry, too.
Jeannie had the patience of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, coupled with the strength of Samson and the rock-steady sense of fairness and justice of Dorothy Day. In 1996, The New York Times quoted her when her family helped fund a retreat leadership center at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains dedicated in Timmy’s name. “Life is not only joyful, it is sorrowful,” she said. “Life is not only Easters, it has Good Fridays, too.”
Jeannie’s enthusiasm was contagious, whether you wanted to catch it or not. At her Funeral Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in White Plains, many remarked that a phone conversation with Jeannie picked up where it had ended in mid-sentence even eight months before. She left you breathless even if you never got a word in, but every encounter energized you to do more for God’s people.
In true Ignatian fashion, she saw God in all things and lived her life as a person for others, often more in deeds than words. In her life, Jeannie Stapleton Smith gave witness to the greater glory of God. Because of her gifts, we must share ours.
Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J. He taught Church history at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, and its Institute of Religious Studies 1996-2001. His latest book is “Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible” (Paulist Press).