March 22, 2002

Rev. John P. Smyth, executive director of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, Ill., has been awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal for 2002. Father Smyth will receive the medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics, during the University’s 157th Commencement exercises on May 19 (Sun.).

“The Notre Dame family has been proud of Father John Smyth since his days as a student here nearly fifty years ago,” said Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C. “His multifaceted ministry certainly deserves the University’s highest honor, but this year we particularly wish to celebrate the exemplary manner in which he has served Christ in the children who are victims of neglect, prostitution, sexual abuse and family violence.”

A Chicago native, Father Smyth was graduated from DePaul Academy in 1953 and from Notre Dame in and a UPI honorable mention All-American player. Despite his selection by the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks as a third-round draft choice, he decided to forgo a professional basketball career in order to pursue a vocation to the Catholic priesthood. Ordained a priest of the Chicago archdiocese in 1962, he was assigned to Maryville Academy, a residence for orphaned and homeless children which had been founded in 1883. He has worked there as a priest, teacher, coach, counselor, administrator, manager, and fundraiser ever since.

Appointed Maryville’s executive director in 1970, Father Smyth oversaw a massive and thorough renovation of an aging physical plant, the development of several new educational, counseling and personal growth programs, the establishment of a diagnostic unit, and the opening of an emergency shelter.

During the 1970’s, as Maryville became increasingly independent of Archdiocesan funding, Father Smyth developed a year-long calendar of fundraising events, culminating in Chuckwagon Day, an annual family picnic which has become the most successful single-day charitable fundraising event in the State of Illinois. The funds thus generated have made possible the establishment of a number of programs for homeless youth, including the Maryville Parenting-Teen Center, the Haymarket-Maryville Post Partum Chemical Dependency Program, Herrick House, Maryville-St. John of God, Maryville Residential Treatment Center, the Maryville Center for Medically Complex Children’s Programs and the Hanley Career Development Center. Maryville has become the largest residential child care facility in the State of Illinois and one of the largest in the nation. More than 18,000 children are served each year by its network of childcare facilities on 23 campuses.

The Laetare (pronounced Lay-tah-ray) Medal is so named because its recipient is announced each year in celebration of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent on the Church calendar. “Laetare,” the Latin word for “rejoice,” is the first word in the entrance antiphon of the Mass that Sunday, which ritually anticipates the celebration of Easter. The medal bears the Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit”–“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”

Established at Notre Dame in 1883, the Laetare Medal was conceived as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor which antedates the 11th century. The medal has been awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Among the 123 previous recipients of the Laetare Medal (see accompanying list) are Civil War General William Rosecrans, operatic tenor John McCormack, Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean.