Father Ralph Sommer is being honored by the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) on November 15. The respected pastor of St. Brigid’s Church spoke to me about his work in Westbury.
Fr. Ralph Sommer grew up in Valley Stream and Garden City. He was influenced by his Uncle Ralph, a Catholic priest, to explore the ministry as a vocation. After graduating with a degree in psychology from Adelphi, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1983.
His first parish was in Freeport. The village had a thriving Latino community including both Puerto Ricans and immigrants. Growing up in Garden City, where the residents are overwhelmingly white, this was the new priest’s introduction to diversity. Two of Fr. Ralph’s grandparents were Bavarians, but he had little experience working with immigrants from Latin America. Fr. Ralph speaks fondly of the active interest Freeport took in keeping the area one where people from all different backgrounds could settle and live together. From Freeport, he went to Hauppague.
More than a decade ago, Fr. Ralph became the pastor of St. Brigid’s Church in Westbury. He recalls that on his first day there a Haitian priest invited him to a procession in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “I said, ‘Today is not her feast day,’ and he told me, ‘In Haiti it is.’” While the Catholic Church is international, its celebrations take on distinctly national aspect that are brought by immigrants to the United States. So in Westbury, the feast is celebrated on two different days.
Fr. Ralph says that Westbury’s Italian community reminds him that Latinos are not the first immigrant group to try to come to terms with life in America. One of the parish’s Italian organizations, the century old Del Assunta Society, conducted all of its meetings in Italian for the first forty years of its operations. During World War II, the organization’s signature event, a procession through the streets of the village carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, was banned by the village because the United States was fighting Italy. “Never mind,” says Fr. Sommer, “that many of the sons of society members were in the United States Army.”
Fr. Ralph acknowledges that when he arrived in St. Brigid’s, there was some skepticism about him. The parish’s two previous pastors had made it a center for innovation. One, Fr. Fred Schaeffer, was a co-founder of CARECEN. Ralph recalls receiving a note of advice from Brian Young, then a student at the parish school, that advised him that things worked well and that “I hope the new guy doesn’t screw it up.”
Ralph says that when he saw the many programs at the parish that brought immigrants and native born together to work for the good of the community he realized that these were “signs of how this community lives the Gospel out.”
He says that even the way the church was decorated told him a lot. Fr. Ralph says that in many churches, if you walk in when there is not a service, there is not a single thing in the church that says that any non-Europeans go there.
St. Brigid’s is filled with religious objects and decorations from the countries of the people who make up the parish. “Being equal doesn’t mean being the same,” he says, adding “everybody has a gift to bring.”
St. Brigid’s Church is a place where immigrants find they can “be themselves, and pray in their own way,” Fr. Ralph says. They can meet after the parish’s Italian, Haitian Creole, or three Spanish masses to gain strength from their shared cultures or make plans for their communities. Fr. Sommer adds that this is nothing new, that the church has been the center of many immigrant communities for more than 150 years.
If you want to join CARECEN in honoring Fr. Ralph, call us Monday through Friday between 9am and 5pm at 516-489-8330.