Enduring lessons from parents have helped deacon brothers center lives on families and keep the faith
Feb. 26, 2018
In the fall of 1987, Deacons Joseph, James and John Somerville were interviewed and photographed by the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, for a story that noted their distinction then of being the only three brothers in the United States to be serving as permanent deacons in the Catholic Church.
Describing the close-knit brothers, the article said their joint interview “was peppered with jolly laughter and gentle teasing. The three men sat in adjoining chairs, seeming to fit together as comfortably as the fingers in a well-worn leather glove.”
That article began by noting that when the Somerville brothers were children, they sometimes raced each other as they ran a few miles to attend Mass at their nearby parish, St. Joseph in Morganza, because there wasn’t room for all 10 children in their Southern Maryland farm family to ride to church together.
Deacon Joseph Somerville, the oldest of those three brothers, died in 1996 at the age of 69. A retired D.C. police officer, he and his wife Harriet had seven children, and he served many years as a deacon at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington.
This past fall, the two surviving Somerville deacon brothers met a Catholic Standard reporter again, 30 years after the first interview, at the home of Deacon John Somerville in Loveville, Maryland, located on the property where their father once farmed tobacco, corn, wheat and soybeans. Deacon James Somerville lives nearby, and the two attend daily Mass together at St. Joseph Church in Morganza, where they grew up and received the sacraments.
“I was born and raised about a mile from here,” said Deacon John Somerville.
Both brothers are now retired from their professional and church work.
Deacon John Somerville, who is now 87, worked for many years at the National Security Agency and served as a deacon at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Seat Pleasant. Deacon James Somerville, who turns 89 on Feb. 25, worked as a supervisor for the Maryland Highway Department and served as a deacon at St. Joseph Parish in Morganza and assisted former Washington Auxiliary Bishops Leonard Olivier and William Curlin, both of whom are now deceased.
As with the first interview, the follow-up gravitated quickly to the lessons the men had learned from their parents, Dellie and Susie Somerville.
Noting how as a youngster he often accompanied his devout mother to church activities, Deacon John Somerville said, “I never went to so many novenas in my life!”
His brother said their parents taught them to try to accept and follow God’s will throughout their lives. “We worked toward that end, doing His will,” said Deacon James Somerville.
The deacons said their father and mother by example taught them enduring lessons about helping others.
“He (our father) was always giving,” said Deacon James Somerville. His brother remembered how their dad in early December would begin splitting wood and collecting vegetables and other food items, which he delivered by horse and wagon to widows, elderly and poor people he knew throughout St. Mary’s County, so they would have warmth and a good dinner for Christmas.
Later when John Somerville was serving in the Army overseas in Germany, he reflected on those Christmases back home. “I cried… (thinking) that’s what Christmas is all about,” and he later shared those lessons with his own children.
Their parents also stressed the importance of their children receiving a good education. Deacon John Somerville noted that their father, 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.
“All of us went there,” he said, noting that all 10 of the Somerville children went on to high school, and five of the 10 went on to college.
Like other African Americans who lived in times of segregation, the Somervilles had to bear their share of crosses in society and even in their church.
When then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle began his pioneering efforts to integrate Catholic parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Washington shortly after becoming archbishop here in 1948, segregation was an entrenched fact of life in the nation’s capital and in Southern Maryland.
Before integration, St. Joseph Parish in Morganza operated separate Catholic elementary schools for white and black children. The Somervilles like other African American Catholics in their parish had to sit in one of the back pews and were expected to wait at the end of the Communion line, after white Catholics received the Eucharist.
“The priest would tell us we couldn’t sit in front. There were a few pews in the back of church we were permitted to sit in,” said Deacon James Somerville.
Deacon John Somerville shared two sad memories from that era, recalling that when he was a child at St. Joseph, the white children were allowed to receive First Holy Communion near the high altar, but then the gates to the sanctuary were closed to the black children, who received the Eucharist near the Communion rail. “That hurt me,” he said.
He was never near the altar until he became a deacon in 1981, he said.
When John Somerville was 13, he and one of his brothers arrived to St. Joseph Church early for a Christmas Mass to hold the pew near the back that his family paid “pew rent” for during the year. First the ushers tried to have them moved from the pew to make room for white Mass-goers, then later at Communion time, the ushers blocked their row from going to Communion until white people sitting behind them had gone. Young John Somerville tried to push his way into the line, and he said he was called the “n” word, and didn’t end up going to Communion at that Mass.
“It was God’s house, and I was God’s child,” he said, reflecting on the anger he felt then.
After serving in an integrated unit in the Army in Germany during the Korean War, John Somerville returned home and was encouraged to apply for a job with NSA. He said when he first went to downtown Washington to turn in his application, a lady told him, “I’m sorry, we don’t hire colored people.” He looked at her and tore up the application and threw it away.
His father taught him to be patient, he said. “He would always say, ‘One day it’ll be your turn.’ I used to wonder, ‘When will it be my turn?’”
He later went to another government office down the street, filled out an application form, and he was hired by the NSA and worked there for 33 years before retiring in 1986.
“Over the years, a lot of things changed naturally,” he said.
Deacon James Somerville noted that after his ordination to the diaconate in 1982, it “was very special” for him to be assigned to his home parish. He assisted at Masses, funerals and at Confirmations, performed Baptisms and helped with marriage counseling. “He definitely opened and closed the church,” said his daughter Stephanie Briscoe.
It seemed to him that some people there initially avoided coming to him for Communion, but he added, “It continued to get better and better… It got to the point (where) I’d have more coming to me for Communion than the priest (did).”
Like many African American Catholics, the Somervilles kept the faith.
“All my relatives were Catholic,” said Deacon John Somerville, who said that growing up, “we didn’t know there was any other religion than Catholicism.”
Deacon James Somerville said he took to heart lessons taught him by the sisters at St. Joseph Parish. “I thought the Lord would get things straightened out, and I worked with that in mind,” he said.
Both men have remained devoted to their families. Deacon James Somerville and his wife Helen have been married for 63 years and have nine children and more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Deacon John Somerville and his wife Audrey were married for nearly 62 years and when she died in 2016, they had 13 living and three deceased children, along with 43 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.
Deacon John Somerville pursued his vocation to the diaconate with the support of his wife Audrey, and after encouragement from his parish priest and from a friend and colleague at the National Security Agency, Thomas Knestout, who himself served as a deacon and was the father of two sons who later became priests for the Archdiocese of Washington – Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout and Father Mark Knestout, now the pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Bethesda.
Audrey Somerville was the past president of the Sodality Union of the Archdiocese of Washington and the National Council of Catholic Women and was very involved at her family’s parish, St. Margaret of Scotland. A tribute 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.”
Her husband, Deacon John Somerville, said, “Audrey did everything… She was very deeply involved in her Catholic faith.”
He noted that when she was very ill and dying, her prayerfulness inspired the doctors and nurses serving her. Then, as when she was healthy, she prayed the Hail Mary throughout the day.
One nurse told Deacon John Somerville, “I was with your wife. She prayed constantly. I’m Catholic – I haven’t been to church in so long. I had to go to church this weekend.’” A doctor told him he never saw anyone like her and said, “She’s an angel.”
“She affected everyone she was around,” her husband said.
This past year, Deacon John Somerville took “the best trip I ever had,” as he joined a granddaughter on a cross-country train ride to the West Coast, where he met with other family members.
Reflecting on a lifetime of blessings, he said, “The most happiest moment, the most cherished moment of my life, is all of them.”
His life, centered around his family and his faith, “has been one of the most rewarding journeys I could imagine,” he said.
His brother, Deacon James Somerville, added, “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 brothers see each other every morning for daily Mass at St. Joseph Church where they once ran to as boys, but now they drive there.
“We meet in the same pew,” said Deacon John Somerville.
And that pew is now near the front of church, in the second row by the center aisle.
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