Written by Pete Sheehan Thursday, 13 June 2013 00:00
When Msgr. Ralph Sommer was growing up he found inspiration from the example of his uncle, Father Ralph Besendorfer. “He was a Brooklyn priest,” said Msgr. Sommer, who is known to parishioners as “Father Sommer” or “Father Ralph.”
“My uncle was a most powerful and delightful influence, happy, caring, and helpful,” said Father Sommer, outgoing pastor of St. Brigid’s Church, in Westbury. “I would look at him and say, ‘I could do that.’”
For a number of years, Father Besendorfer would come out to St. Bernard’s in Levittown on weekends to assist.
Now, Father Sommer finds himself about to become pastor of St. Bernard’s on June 26, succeeding Msgr. Gerard Ringenback, pastor of St. Bernard’s since 2001.
He doesn’t know if anyone at St. Bernard’s will remember his uncle, Father Sommer said, but “if I meet people who remember him from that time, it will be a nice thing.”
Born in Flushing, Queens, Father Sommer grew up in Garden City, attending St. Anne’s School. He advanced to St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary, a high school for young men considering the priesthood.
“It was a caring community,” with priest-instructors and students who shared an interest in exploring the priesthood.
For college, he left the seminary system for Adelphi University near his home. “I walked every day. We didn’t have another car.”
Adelphi offered an opportunity to test his vocation. He majored in psychology, “which I thought would help me if I became a priest.”
After Adelphi, he returned to priestly studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington. Upon graduation, he was ordained a priest in 1983.
Since ordination, he has served in various assignments, including associate pastor of Our Holy Redeemer, Freeport, and St. Thomas More, Hauppauge.
For several years, he chaired a diocesan evangelization committee, which promoted the idea that ordinary Catholics as well as clergy and Church staff could share their faith and promote the Gospel in the course of their everyday lives and ministries.
He also headed a diocesan effort, Renew 2000, which fostered development of small faith-sharing groups in the individual parishes to help parishioners deepen their faith and draw more people into active involvement in the Church.
In 2001, Father Sommer came to St. Brigid’s, his first pastorate, a marked contrast from his experience in the larger, more homogeneous St. Thomas in Hauppauge.
"At St. Brigid’s we have 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 it was different, “I felt like I belonged here,” he said. “I learned more about God by learning how other people experience God in their lives.”
He was also impressed by the generosity and graciousness of the people and the staff of the parish, which supports a range of services and ministries for the people of the parish and beyond.
Shortly after his arrival came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “It was devastating for us. We had eight funerals” for victims of the attack for which the body could not even be present for the funeral. “In addition, many of the parishioners lost other family and friends in the attack.”
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.
One difficulty he has found as pastor, as opposed to his years as an associate pastor, is the additional responsibilities the pastor has for administering the finances, facilities, and staff of the parish.
“I find that it is more difficult to ‘pastor’ the people, to serve as shepherd of the parish,” Father Sommer said, when he has less time to be with the people.
Though he has been happy as pastor at St. Brigid’s, Father Sommer said that he looks forward to going to St. Bernard’s. St. Brigid’s and St. Bernard’s each have a transition team to help the respective pastors, staff, and parishioners know what to expect.
One constant he has found throughout his parishes, Father Sommer said, “is the ability to celebrate Mass everyday and be with people in the joys and struggles of their lives.”