Father Rowan Smith, the former dean of St George’s Cathedral who died at his home in Goodwood last week, has been remembered as a gentle, kind man who championed social justice and stood up boldly for what he believed in.
Mr Smith, who served as dean from 1996 to 2010, before handing over the reins to Michael Weeder, reportedly suffered a cracked femur when he slipped while preparing for the Good Friday divine service at the cathedral.
He had been in hospital for a month.
Mr Smith made headlines when he announced from the pulpit that he was gay. His sexuality was accepted by his colleagues, parishioners and congregation.
Bishop Garth Counsell, the bishop of the Table Bay Diocese that includes Cape Town, said he was not sure how long Mr Smith had been a priest, but he had known him since he had joined the diocese 39 years ago.
“We suffered a huge loss of a priest, a pastor, a colleague, a friend, and a family man. We’ve lost a spiritual giant.”
The bishop said Mr Smith had been a very compassionate man.
“One of the outstanding things about him was his humility and his acceptance of who he was, and he embraced that. And I think that’s the mark he left on many.
“We are very grateful for his time and ministry spent in the church, especially the leadership as we worked closely with him.”
He said he had admired Mr Smith for his deep spirituality and prayer and for leading by example in living his priestly life.
“His kindness and generosity was also expressed, for instance, on birthdays, Christmas and Easter, he would always be the one to give everyone handwritten cards, and this continued well after his retirement.”
Mike Botha, a friend of the family, said he had known Mr Smith for 14 years.
“I met him at a childhood friend’s wedding he was officiating at, and we exchanged numbers and became close friends.”
Mr Botha said Mr Smith had been very strict about his prayer routine and he had had a sense of family. “Whenever he and his sister, Debbie, had a function or dinner or holiday, they made me feel included. Anyone who they thought didn’t have a place to go was invited to share the meal.”
He had also been a very quiet person, said Mr Botha. “We met every Sunday to talk about our week and our challenges and triumphs. These were my favourite times with him – our downtime.”
Mr Botha said Mr Smith and his sister had planned a service last year at Grassy Park’s Good Shepherd Church, the first parish Mr Smith had preached at. “I’m so glad we did that. There was an outpouring of people who remembered him from that time.”
A statement from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Leah Tutu hailed Father Smith as “among the gentlest, kindest, most open-hearted and loving human beings whom we had the good fortune to call our friend and colleague”.
Sharon Cox, from the Triangle Project, said she was shocked to learn of
Mr Smith’s death.
“Rowan was passionate about social justice and equality, never afraid to step out boldly to make statements for that which he believed in.”
She said Mr Smith had served on the Triangle Project’s board and had continued to support the organisation long after his term had ended and even when he had been unwell. “He was a man of integrity and a deep and critical thinker. A man who used his life wisely, beyond his priestly duties, to touch others.
“We shall miss him and his presence and the role model he was in allowing people to understand that sexuality and spirituality can be reconciled. Rest in power, canon and comrade,” she said.
* The funeral will be held at St George’s Cathedral on Saturday June 2, at 9am.