Obituary: Abbot Leo Smith

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The Independent Culture
DRESSED IN a black polo neck and a pair of dark trousers a man busily swept up the leaves in one corner of the courtyard at Buckfast Abbey, in Devon. "Is this the way to the bookshop?" asked a couple of visitors who were taking every opportunity to see "the hidden Buckfast" and did not fear the authority of a mere gardener. "No, no. It's up on the left, back the way you've come!" A gust of wind swirled the leaves back out of the wheelbarrow. Abbot Leo Smith grinned. "They work us hard here - always busy."

Not for an instant did the couple recognise the man with the shock of white hair as the jovial Abbot of Buckfast, who half an hour earlier had solemnly taken Mass and preached inspiringly or who, dressed in the black habit of the Benedictines, with abbatial cross glinting, would welcome groups of foreign visitors in French, German or Italian.

Philip Smith was born in 1916, and was educated at Kingsbridge Grammar School. He entered the Benedictine community at Buckfast Abbey in 1934 (when he was given the religious name of Leo), and made his solemn profession as a monk in 1938. In pre-war Fascist Italy, he studied Philosophy at the International Benedictine College of Sant' Anselmo in Rome, but was forced by the outbreak of hostilities to return to Britain. He was ordained priest in 1940, and at the end of the war completed his doctorate in Rome.

In the Fifties, he accompanied the Buckfast beekeeper Brother Adam on extensive travels through Italy, searching for bee breeding materials. Smith was completely at home in the Bee Department, describing the honey- extracting processes or the value of a Buckfast Queen Bee. He would discuss with both scientists and commercial beekeepers from all over the world Brother Adam's quest to breed the perfect honeybee, which resulted in the distinctive tan-coloured Buckfast bee - gentle, disease-resistant and honey-producing.

Smith spent 17 years in charge of the Tonic Shop and the manufacture of the Buckfast tonic wine. From 1957 until 1968 he was Prior of the abbey, and also held the post of Master of Studies for the English Benedictine Congregation.

Smith became Abbot in 1976, for the statutory eight-year term, and was re-elected in 1984. During this time he helped to keep the abbey in touch with changes in the outside world and also to show thousands of visitors to the abbey that monastic life was relevant to modern society.

I remember him too in his St John's Ambulance uniform, as president of the local division 1976-90, dashing off to yet another demonstration or standing on the sidelines of the inter-schools matches, where he was always at the ready with the bucket and sponge.

His public speaking was humorous and enthralling. So too privately were his many tales of his student days at Sant' Anselmo College. His descriptions of the restoration works of the medieval buildings of Buckfast were fascinating and instructive. He was a colourful, larger-than-life character who could always argue the opposing view, always enjoy strong debate. He was a true emissary of his God, who kept in touch with the world and led by his kindly example.

Lesley Bill

Philip Smith, priest: born Rochester, Kent 17 June 1916; clothed a monk as Dom Leo 1934; ordained priest 1940; Prior of Buckfast 1957-68, Abbot 1976-92; Titular Abbot of Colchester 1992-98; died Buckfastleigh, Devon 10 July 1998.