Deacon James Somerville, one of three deacon brothers, was pillar of St. Joseph, Morganza, his home parish
Jan 21, 2021
Stephanie Briscoe said her father – Deacon James Somerville, who died Dec. 26 at the age of 91 – “was praying to the end.”
Deacon James Somerville, who died of complications from COVID-19, is survived by his wife of 66 years, Helen, and by their nine children, 37 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.
He had been the last surviving of three brothers ordained as permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Washington who were believed to be the only deacons with that distinction in the United States.
For 33 years after his ordination in 1982 until his retirement in 2015, Deacon James Somerville served at his home parish, St. Joseph in Morganza, where as a child he had raced to church with other brothers from their family farm a few miles away, because all 10 children couldn’t fit in the car. He worked for many years as a supervisor for the Maryland Highway Department.
Deacon Joseph Somerville, a longtime D.C. Metropolitan Police officer, served at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington and died in 1996. Deacon John Somerville, who worked for many years as an analyst for the National Security Agency, died Oct. 18, 2020 at the age of 90. He served over the years as a deacon at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Seat Pleasant and at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1987, Deacon Joseph Somerville, Deacon James Somerville and Deacon John Somerville were interviewed by the Catholic Standard about their vocations. Deacon Joseph Somerville (at left) died in 1996. Thirty years after the original interview, the surviving Somerville deacon brothers, Deacon James and John Somerville, seen in the photo below, were interviewed again in 2017. Deacon John Somerville died in October 2020 and Deacon James Somerville died in December. (CS photos/Michael Hoyt)
In interviews with the Catholic Standard, the deacon brothers credited the example of their parents for their enduring faith. Their father Dellie was known for delivering firewood and food to the poor and elderly in St. Mary’s County, and their mother Susie was known as a devout woman of prayer. The family remained steadfast in the faith, even though as African Americans during times of segregation, they had to sit in the back of St. Joseph Church and wait until the end of the Communion line.
Deacon Keith Somerville, the son of Deacon John Somerville, presided at the graveside service on Jan. 2 at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Cemetery in Mechanicsville for his uncle, Deacon James Somerville.
Asked about the legacy of the three deacon brothers, he said, “It is love for God and love for family, and that love was shared throughout the Washington metropolitan area.”
He said his uncle “put God first. His faith was first… He would tell you it was a blessing to be on the altar and to serve God.”
A biographical tribute written by his family members detailed Deacon James Somerville’s life of service, how he supported efforts to integrate Southern Maryland Schools and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. Like his father, he raised a large family and brought food to the area’s poor. A member of the Knights of St. John and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he organized St. Joseph’s church festival and mowed the lawn of the parish cemetery.
As a deacon at St. Joseph’s, he assisted at Masses, funerals and Confirmations, performed Baptisms and counseled couples for marriage, took Communion to the sick and shut-ins, and assisted former Washington Auxiliary Bishops Leonard Olivier and William Curlin. He also volunteered with the Forestville Pregnancy Center and with Catholic Charities. In 1995, the Somerville deacon brothers received the Caritas Award from Catholic Charities, that agency’s highest honor.
Summarizing her father’s service at St. Joseph’s Parish, Stephanie Briscoe said, “He definitely opened and closed the church.”
In 2017, Deacon James Somerville told the Catholic Standard, “I devoted my life to the Lord, to try to do His will in whatever I do.” He said being able to serve the Lord, “first as a parent, husband, grandparent and great-grandparent, and then in the diaconate has fulfilled every desire and blessing I can wish for.”
The deacon said it was very special for him to serve at his home parish.
Father Keith Woods, now the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Waldorf and the administrator of St. Mary’s in Newport, served for many years as the pastor of St. Joseph in Morganza, and he said, “Everyone I ever met who knew the deacon thought he was a saint.”
The priest grew up in Southern Maryland and as a student at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown first met the deacon, who later attended his first Mass as a priest.
“Becoming his parish priest was great because we understood each other and understood the great people of St. Mary’s County,” Father Woods said. “We shared experiences and people we knew.”
He added that Deacon Somerville also had humorous sayings, like, “I never met a bad child, just a child who wasn’t good yet.”
Father Woods said the deacon “had a real dignity and sense of self that was rooted in his identity as a Catholic gentleman and a deacon. He saw his life as one of service, but he was always resolutely firm about what he believed… His life was his family, charity, helping a neighbor, social interaction with others, and the sacraments and prayer.”
The priest added, “Since his death, I have realized how much he meant to me for so long. We always suspected he was a saint. Now he goes to join them forever.”