Chai Brady speaks to a pro-life prodigy
When disaster strikes it can be a severe test to Faith, and for one of the most devout and well-known figures in the pro-life movement, this was when she lost her mother at the tender age of 19.
Bernadette Smyth, the Director of Precious Life, a group which continues battling to retain legislation making abortion illegal in the North of Ireland, has certainly been on a testing journey
From Ballymena, Co. Antrim, her parents raised the family of six daughters and two sons in a household characterised by a “very strong Faith”.
This grounded Mrs Smyth in her Faith, but this was soon put to the test when she was still a teenager. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and died only a few weeks afterwards.
“That’s when I really was challenged in a big way as to whether God existed and if he did, why did he take my mother so tragically,” Mrs Smyth says.
“For about a year I fell away from my Faith, and it was during that time after my mother’s death that I met my husband.”
Just a year after meeting Derek they were married, but it was a marriage that many would see as controversial in the 1980s in the North, as she was a Catholic and he was Protestant. They were married both in the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church – after a priest assisted in her return to the Faith.
However, after 19 years of marriage, her husband converted to Catholicism. Mrs Smyth says: “I’d always prayed that he’d have a conversion to the Faith, it wasn’t something I bombarded him with or said he must do, I really prayed it would be something God would give him the Grace to do.
But still it was the “biggest shock to her” when he announced it one day unexpectedly. Since Mrs Smyth was in her 20s she has been a daily communicant, she says: “So that was a 30-year journey of Faith, of being a daily communicant, praying the rosary every day, and that’s the sort of home then that we had for our children that was handed on to me from my home.”
“I’ve been blessed by such a great husband who does bless everything I do. He is my right hand man, he is there through thick and thin and I suppose I couldn’t do it without his support, and I do listen to him he’s a great wise person,” she says. Derek now works with her in Precious Life.
Derek hasn’t been the only very supportive figure in her life, Mrs Smyth’s father Francis gave a “substantial donation” towards the establishment of Precious life.
Francis was imprisoned in a POW (Prisoner of War) camp in North Korea while fighting with the British army in the 1950s. Despite his wife fearing she might be a widow, he was freed and managed to make it home, not long after Mrs Smyth was born behind her two older sisters.
His regiment was awarded by the US government for their involvement in the war. He died nine years ago.
“When you grow up with a father like that you hear the war stories, I’ve only realised what a father I had after I started to look at the background of the war, myself and family, and we were thinking we had such an amazing father when he was on this earth,” says Mrs Smyth.
Her journey in the pro-life movement began when she was a young mother. Always deeply devoted to the Divine Mercy, Mrs Smyth went to Dublin for the first time to see a talk by Ugo Festa, an Italian man who went to Lourdes with serious health issues and is said to have been miraculously healed in front of a shrine to the Divine Mercy.
At the event she picked up some pro-life literature and “it was there for the first time in my whole life I looked at an image of a baby that had been aborted”, she says.
“In that moment my life had been transformed in a split second, because I knew there and then my life was never going to be the same, it was like as if god ordained that moment for me, to transform me.”
Mrs Smyth went back to the prayer group she ran in her parish in Ballymena, and they prayed over the literature. It was from that prayer group the seeds of Precious Life were planted.
Looking towards the future Mrs Smyth said: “I’m not ready to give up the ministry but I am training more young people, I feel that God is directing me in handing on the baton to a younger generation. In many ways, it’s not that I’m slowing down, I sometimes feel I’m getting a bit tired.
“Because in Northern Ireland, like all the pro-life groups in the south of Ireland up until last year, it was relentless. Campaign after campaign, threat after threat, and that hasn’t stopped for the 22 years that I’ve been involved.
“I feel that there is a new generation of young people, I’m attracting a lot of good young people and they are young people of Faith which is encouraging for me.”
Although Mrs Smyth says she may focus on pregnancy healthcare and crisis pregnancy in the future – Precious Life established Stanton Healthcare in Belfast which is a women’s healthcare clinic – she is also considering politics.
She has been asked numerous times to stand in the NI elections as a pro-life Catholic. “I would consider it, I am considering it, but I can’t honestly say that I feel that that’s what I’d be happy to do because that would be a pressuring position as well,” Mrs Smyth said.
Who knows what may happen in the future, but as her pro-life battle continues, Mrs Smyth has certainly earned her stripes as one of Northern Ireland’s most well-known campaigners