A: The Jeopardy! Priest, Q: Who Is Tom Smolich? Correct for $39,802!

updated 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The foundations of his church's new day-care center are in Jeopardy!, and Father Tom Smolich couldn't be happier.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

Smolich, a Jesuit priest at the Dolores Mission church in East Los Angeles, wanted to help some of the women in his parish get off welfare and into the working world. The stumbling block was day care, or more precisely the $90,000 it would take to construct a building on church property where toddlers could frolic. The situation seemed hopeless until Smolich, 34, saw a newspaper ad soliciting contestants for the TV game show Jeopardy!, taped in Hollywood. "What the heck," he recalls thinking. "It can only be a horrible mistake."

At first it was simply frustrating. After passing auditions by convincingly displaying "enthusiasm under pressure," Smolich appeared as a contestant last December. "I did reasonably well, but I finished second," he says. "I was disappointed."

But somebody—at the very least Jeopardy!'s assistant producer—was watching over Father Smolich. Two weeks later he received a call explaining that the contestant who had defeated Smolich had mistakenly been given credit for a wrong answer. The priest was invited to try his luck once again.

This time, during Final Jeopardy, Smolich correctly identified the state in which James Earl Ray is incarcerated (Tennessee) to tie five-time winner Larry McKnight of Ventura, Calif., thus enabling Smolich to continue the next day. He appeared three more times and racked up $39,802 in earnings-enough for a down payment on a new day-care center. "A lot of times we get highfalutin ideas of what miracles are," says Smolich, whose victories aired last week. "This was a great thing for me and, more importantly, for our program. I consider it a miracle."

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