The Singing Nun had a top hit with 1963’s Dominique, and Bing Crosby used to play honey-throated priests in movies like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. But neither of them could hold an altar candle to Father Tom Smith, a 57-year-old priest at St. Mary’s German Catholic Church in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport, Pa. For the past 13 years, Father Tom (as he’s billed) has embellished his pastoral duties with a raucous song-and-dance act that’s made him the nation’s best-known vaudeville priest.
“How many of you have pastors who get up onstage and wiggle?” asks Smith, moments after bounding into the spotlight during a recent gig at Ben Gross’ Restaurant in Irwin, Pa. Following his breezy opening patter (including such parish-house oldies as “Know how to make holy water? Put the pot on the stove and boil the hell out of it!”), he breaks into song: “Make way for the newfangled preacher man.” Soon three fellow Pittsburgh-area priests join Smith onstage as the Four Fathers, but Father Tom is the undisputed star. For his number A Tribute to the Living Saints, he dons tap shoes to pay ecumenical homage to the likes of “Saint Fred Astaire” and “Saint Gene Kelly.” After a rendition of “A tisket, a tasket, I love that wicker basket” and other less-than-reverent songs, Smith brings the audience to its feet with the rousing finale, Don’t Tell the Bishop What You Saw.
Smith, whose consistently upbeat message is “Say yes to life,” admits he is in an “unsafe area” because his dual calling is tolerated but not necessarily commended by his bishop. “Still, I will never poke fun at the teaching authority of the church,” he says. Father Tom has been featured on The Mike Douglas Show, To Tell the Truth and the Today show and is in demand as a fund raiser for national charities. “The stage occupies more of the whole man, the whole me,” Smith confesses, but hastily adds that “ministering and performing are equally rewarding.”
Choosing between the two has long bedeviled him. As a teenager, third of nine children of a Catholic railroad brakeman and a Protestant housewife in the western Pennsylvania town of Pitcairn, he resolved the conflict between his budding career as a hoofer and his inclination for the priesthood by striking out in 1943 for the Great White Way. After only one month in New York, he was hired for the Ziegfeld Follies chorus line. Smith fell for several Ziegfeld Follies lovelies, he claims, but adds, “I was very naive about sex and the New York world.” One night outside a theater “I got a tremendous spiritual feeling. You might say I was mugged on Broadway by God.”
Ordained in 1951 after three years at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., Smith found that “it was tough to put show business out of my mind.” He produced and directed shows for the Catholic Theatre Guild but became a born-again performer in 1967 after the enthusiastic response to his last-minute stand-in role in a musical. If he was to return to the stage, he felt, “I was going to put meaning into it and do it up right.” He enlisted a choreographer friend and, out of his own pocket, hired a writer, a 16-piece orchestra and a hall for his comeback. The acclaim encouraged him to brave the Borscht Belt, where at one Catskill resort, Smith reports, “Jackie Mason and some other comedians came onstage and gave me a kneeling ovation.”
For the past decade Smith has appeared, mainly in local venues, three or four nights a week. He balances his life as priest and showman by forgoing vacations; to him, “The stage is recreation. It relaxes me.” He has cut an album, The Touch of Father Tom Smith, whose profits “all go to Charity,” he winks. “She’s this girl one of the other priests here is running around with.” (Actually, his entertainment income barely covers expenses.) He is currently fund raising to create a pilot for a TV variety-talk show, and he frankly states, “I would be a much more fulfilled priest—and I think the church would be better off—if the bishop would allow me to travel full time as a theatrical evangelist. But what I do is not his cup of tea.”
Others also find his act hard to swallow. Father Tom once began a song with “I wanna get married,” but at the very mention of such an unpriestly sentiment a woman in the audience fainted dead away. “Some people,” he admits, “say, ‘Why don’t you go back to your parish and preach rather than try to take jobs away from Sinatra and Martin?’ I tell them Sinatra and Martin can come to my church anytime and preach. Think of the collection!”