Written by Pete Sheehan, firstname.lastname@example.org Thursday, 20 June 2013 00:00
When Msgr. Ralph Sommer became pastor of St. Brigid’s Church, Westbury, 12 years ago, it was quite a change.
“I had served at a parish out in Hauppauge, St. Thomas More,” a fairly homogeneous parish, said Msgr. Sommer, known to parishioners as “Father Sommer” or “Father Ralph.” In Westbury, he found great diversity.
“We have 11 Masses in four languages — Spanish, Creole, Italian, and English,” Father Sommer said. In addition, there are parishioners of African-American, Philippine, Indian, and other Asian birth or ancestry.
Though Westbury was different, “I felt like I belonged here,” Father Sommer said. “I learned more about God by learning how other people experience God in their lives.”
After 12 years at St. Brigid’s, his first pastorate, Father Sommer is leaving to become pastor of St. Bernard’s Church in Levittown.
“We have had the privilege of seeing him grow spiritually, as well as ourselves,” parishioner Sophie Mundy, noted on the parish website.
“It’s going to be difficult to leave,” said Father Sommer said. Having served the customary two terms at one parish, he is being transferred by the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Succeeding him in Westbury will be Father Anthony Stanganelli, now pastor of SS. Philip and James Church, St. James.
A native of Flushing, Queens, Father Sommer grew up in Garden City. He graduated from Adelphi University before progressing to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington to study for the priesthood.
He was ordained a priest of the Rockville Centre Catholic Diocese in 1983.
Father Sommer has served as associate pastor of Our Holy Redeemer Church, Freeport, and St. Thomas More in Hauppauge.
He also chaired a committee on evangelization for the diocese, exploring ways that the diocese could best present the Gospel to people today in the course of its every day ministry, and headed Renew 2000, to foster spiritual growth in parishes.
Only a few months after his arrival came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It was devastating for us,” Sommer said. “We had eight funerals.”
Yet the parish came together and drew support from each other, Father Sommer said. The news of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church was also shocking, yet the parish dealt with that together as well, growing in their trust of each other.
One challenge that Father Sommer faced was financial: “The parishioners have always been generous but we have many ministries in the parish that serve many people.”
The parish outreach office, for example offers immigration counseling, food pantry, and advocacy for anyone in need in the community. St. Brigid’s has its religious education and, along with the neighboring parish, Our Lady of Hope Church, Carle Place, supports St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School.
The financial situation was complicated when Nassau County, facing its own financial difficulties, stopped paying $400,000 a year for Nassau police to use the former parish convent building.
The parish sought to find another tenant, but specifically one that would benefit the community. They succeeded in finding a residential school for children with Asperger’s syndrome that wanted to rent the convent building. The mission of the school fits well with the mission of the parish, Father Sommer said, but he worried about possible community opposition.
“Instead 300 people came out to support it,” Father Sommer said, and the students in the school have integrated with the Westbury community.
Father Sommer looks forward to his new parish but knows he will miss St. Brigid’s.
His parishioners, based on postings on the parish website, say that they will miss his faith, his ability to engage people, his humor, and his skill with computers.
Parishioner Jennifer Moerler wrote: “Father Ralph will make you want to come to church every week and help out any way you can.”
Bill Lardaro, a parish outreach volunteer, praised Father Sommer as “a loving caring priest” who also offers “foresight and imagination to help the parish.”
Carleen Barten, an active parishioner, praised Father Sommer’s homiles for helping her hear Scripture with “new ears.” She described him as “a tour guide” for her spiritual journey.