Deacon John Somerville remembered for his steadfast Catholic faith despite racism he experienced
Nov 7, 2020
When he heard the news that his father had died, Deacon Keith Somerville raced to the family home in Loveville, Maryland, to join his siblings there.
As he made the 45-minute drive to rural Southern Maryland, he reflected on the life of his dad, Deacon John Walter Somerville Sr., a long life marked by love for his large family and for his Catholic faith, and dedicated service to his Church and his country, and he said two words kept coming to mind: “Well done!”
Deacon John Somerville, known by his middle name, “Walter,” to his family members, died Oct. 18, 2020 at the age of 90. Ordained as a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1981, he had the distinction of being among three brothers ordained as deacons, believed to be a first for the Catholic Church in the United States. Deacon Joseph Somerville, who died in 1996, was ordained in 1986; and Deacon James Somerville, who was ordained in 1982, assisted at Deacon John Somerville’s Mass of Christian Burial at their home church, St. Joseph in Morganza, on Oct. 28.
A photo from 1987 shows, from left to right, Deacons Joseph, James and John Somerville, who had the distinction of being the first three brothers ordained as permanent deacons for the Catholic Church in the United States. (CS photo/Michael Hoyt)
The Somerville brothers said they were shaped by the devout Catholic faith of their parents, Dellie and Susie Somerville, an African American couple who had a farm in Loveville and raised 10 children. The deacons remembered that as children, they ran a few miles to attend St. Joseph Church in Morganza, because there wasn’t room for all the members of their large family to ride to church together. Dellie Somerville was known for sharing food and firewood with the poor and elderly, and Susie Somerville faithfully attended many church activities, including novenas, often with her children in tow.
The future deacons also endured racism and segregation in their parish and their society, but they kept their faith in their Church and their country. Deacon John Somerville remembered his father telling him, “One day it will be your turn.”
In a 2017 interview with the Catholic Standard, the surviving deacon brothers, Deacons John and James Somerville remembered the indignity that their family experienced at St. Joseph Church as they grew up, having to sit in the back of church and wait until the end of the Communion line because they were Black, at a time when that Southern Maryland church, like society, practiced segregation, even having a Catholic elementary school for White children and a separate school for Black children.
“It was God’s house, and I was God’s child,” Deacon John Somerville said, expressing the hurt he remembered from a Christmas when as a teen, he was blocked from receiving Communion by an usher until White people sitting behind them had gone, and when he tried to push his way into the line, he was called the “n” word.
But in their retirement as elderly men, Deacons John and James Somerville attended daily Mass together at St. Joseph Church, sitting side-by-side in a front pew.
Deacon John Somerville also described how, after serving as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, he went to apply for a job with the National Security Agency in 1953, and initially a white woman clerk refused to accept his application, telling him, “I’m sorry, we don’t hire colored people.”
In frustration, he initially tore up that application and threw it away. But he was encouraged to apply again at an office down the street, and he was hired by the NSA and worked for that government agency as an analyst for 33 years before retiring in 1986, after earning commendations for his work from the directors of multiple intelligence agencies.
The late Deacon Joseph Somerville served for many years as a D.C. police officer and served as a deacon at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington, and Deacon James Somerville worked as a supervisor for the Maryland Highway Department and served as a deacon at his home parish, St. Joseph in Morganza.
Deacon John Somerville served at St. Margaret’s Parish in Seat Pleasant and was one of the first two deacons assigned to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he served for 25 years until he retired in 2005.
Deacon Keith Somerville followed in his father’s and uncles’ footsteps, and was ordained as a deacon for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2015.
The next year, he preached the homily at the Funeral Mass for his mother, Audrey Somerville, the wife of Deacon John Somerville and the mother of their 14 children.
“She dedicated her life to loving, serving and praising God for all that he’s done for her,” he said of his mother, who had been involved with many Catholic activities at her parish and served as president of the archdiocese’s Sodality Union.
A tribute to Audrey Somerville in her funeral program noted, “She stood by her faith, stood by her husband, stood by her family and stood by her friends. Now she is standing by… waiting for us in Heaven.”
Deacon Keith Somerville, above, gives the homily at the Oct. 28, 2020 Mass of Christian Burial for his father, Deacon John Somerville. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Then after Deacon John Somerville died, his son Deacon Keith Somerville also gave the homily at his father’s Funeral Mass on Oct. 28, held in St. Joseph Church where the elder deacon had raced on foot to Mass as a youngster and faithfully attended in his last years.
“Our Dad always had a sense that God was near him,” he said, noting the first reading from Isaiah 55:6-9 at the Mass, which included the phrase, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near,” was read at his father’s ordination as a deacon nearly 40 years ago, as was the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which described the calling of the first deacons in the Church to a ministry of service to Christ and to their fellow people.
Deacon Keith Somerville added, “God designed deacons to be a blessing, and yes, that is who our Dad was, he was a blessing to all whose paths he crossed.”
His father, he said, lived that ministry of service and of love as a deacon, preaching the Gospel, leading funeral services, celebrating the sacraments of Baptism and marriage and taking Communion to the sick and the homebound.
Before becoming a deacon, John Somerville volunteered as a Catholic Youth Organization basketball coach at the old St. Cyprian’s Church in Washington, served on the parish council at St. Margaret’s, and assisted with food and clothing programs. After his ordination, Deacon John Somerville served on the archdiocese’s Diaconate Board and was a friend and mentor to men preparing to be deacons and those engaged in that ministry. “He was always there to be their rock,” his son said.
Deacon John Somerville was a fourth degree member of the Knights of Columbus and received the Benemerenti Medal from Pope St. John Paul II for outstanding service to the Church, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington presented him with its Caritas Award. He was a founder of the Forestville Pregnancy Center and the Prince George’s County Men’s Shelter, served on the board of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, and mentored young men detained at the Cheltenham Youth Facility.
During his homily, Deacon Keith Somerville noted that this past February he had cooked a fried chicken dinner for his father and asked him for his advice on being a better servant of the Lord.
“Focus on the Lord and talk to Him, and most importantly, listen to Him,” his father responded, also encouraging his son to read the Bible daily and “get to know Jesus Christ better every day.”
Deacon Keith Somerville said that on the day before his father died, each of his living children got to spend time with him, love him, hug him and kiss him, and he asked them, “Don’t forget me.”
What their father most wanted them to remember about him, the younger Deacon Somerville said, was to “know, love and serve God with all your heart, mind and soul,” as he had.
“Our Dad, Deacon John Somerville, carried the light of Christ to others,” he said.
After Communion, three of Deacon John Somerville’s sons read tributes to their father.
Darryl Somerville read his dad’s obituary from the Funeral Mass program, noting that their father was born on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, on Aug. 15, 1930, and that he graduated from Banneker High School as the class valedictorian and studied engineering at the Hampton Institute before serving in the Army. The late deacon’s father, Dellie Somerville, along with other family and community members, helped start Benjamin Banneker Elementary and High School in Loveville that was the first public school for African American students in St. Mary’s County.
John Somerville met his future wife, Audrey, at a church festival and announced that she was the woman he was going to marry. They were married for almost 62 years, until her death in 2016. They had 14 children, 44 grandchildren and 43 great-grandchildren.
In addition to his wife Audrey, Deacon John Somerville was preceded in death by their son Dwayne and daughter Felicia. He is survived by his daughters Velveetta, Glenda, Jacinta and sons Francis, Andre, John Jr., Anthony, Marcus, Kevin, Darryl, Martin and Deacon Keith Somerville and by their spouses and by his grandchildren and great grandchildren. He is also survived by his sister, Susie Loretta Collins, and his brother, Deacon James Somerville, and by many nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.
At the Mass, Andre Somerville read a poem honoring their father, saying, “You gave us the blueprint for manhood.”
A citation honoring Deacon John Somerville from Maryland State Senator Joanne Benson (District 24-Prince George’s County), noted, “We are all better because he passed our way.”
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., a longtime family friend and the main celebrant at the Mass, said Deacon John Somerville’s life could be summed up by the words of Micah 6:8, that says the Lord calls on people “to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In a later interview, Bishop Campbell noted that Deacon Somerville encouraged his vocation to the diaconate and later to the priesthood.
“I sought his counsel and wisdom on numerous occasions… He had time for everyone who needed him,” the bishop said, adding, “He was very humble. He knew all the gifts he had came from God and always willingly shared whatever he could with whomever he could.”
Father Drew Royals, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, was among the priests concelebrating the Mass. Assisting at the Mass was Deacon Ira Chase, who served with Deacon Somerville for many years at the National Shrine.
“What I learned from him was commitment. It was a great honor to be there,” Deacon Chase said in a later interview, describing their ministry at the basilica. He noted that his friend and fellow deacon years earlier had coached him in CYO basketball at St. Cyprian Parish. “He was my mentor. We go back a long ways.”
In his 2017 interview with the Catholic Standard, Deacon John Somerville had reflected on a lifetime of blessings. He said his life, centered around his family and his faith, “has been one of the most rewarding journeys I could imagine.”
The last eulogy at the Funeral Mass was offered by Kevin Somerville, who noted, “For Pop, his favorite day was Sunday. We went to church as a family.”
He said that as his father got older and it was harder for him to walk, he asked him why he insisted on walking to the front of St. Joseph’s Church instead of sitting in the back.
Deacon John Somerville explained to him that when he was younger, “We as Black people could not sit up front anywhere.”
Kevin Somerville noted, “It hurt him most, because that also included church. It never took away his love for God. He continued to move forward, during the time of the Jim Crow era as well as to the Civil Rights movement. Through all that, he said, ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
He added that his father then answered his question, “So Son, that’s why I exercise my right to sit in front of the church every time I can.”
Before and then during the Mass, Deacon John Somerville’s casket was placed before the sanctuary, in the front of the church, where he lay in state as the members of his large and loving family sat in nearby pews. Afterward, interment was at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Cemetery in Mechanicsville, Maryland.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. incenses the casket of Deacon John Somerville at his Oct. 28 Funeral Mass. At right is one of the deacon's sons, Deacon Keith Somerville, who preached the homily. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)