A gift of $400,000 was received by St. Joseph Catholic School Monday, Jan. 28, 2019 from Father Richard Lawrence Somers, who passed away Oct. 19, 2016, at 76.
Paul Artman, who was principal for 11 years, worked closely with Somers.
“He loved Greenville, and Greenville loved him. It was amazing to watch him work. He loved the community, and he loved the people.”
Artman said Somers had answers during times of stress.
“My job was always to worry about things – how are we going to do this or that and pay for things,” Artman said. “He would always say two things, ‘Have faith and pray.’
“I belive he said that not only because of his deep faith, but he also he knew he had plans for St. Joe. He left an amazing gift to the school.”
The gift was received during Catholic Schools week, which is a special time, said Britt Virden, chairman of St. Joe’s Capitol Campaign.
“Father Somers loved St. Joseph High School, and in his will, he donated a generous gift to the school through the Richard and Mary Somers Memorial Trust, which was set up to honor his parents,” Virden said. “All proceeds of the trust go to benefit St. Joe.”
Bishop Kopacz celebrated mass with the entire student body, faculty and parish in the high school gym. After the mass, a short ceremony was held for the announcement.
“Father Somers’ generosity was legendary and this gift will leave a lasting legacy at the school,” Virden said.
Father Somer’s life
The Irish-born Catholic priest was born in Clogh, Castlecomer Co., Kilkenny, Ireland, on Aug. 8, 1940, to Richard and Mary Somers, he was the fifth of six siblings.
According to the story “Hearing the Call of God,” written by Gloria Mansour Traylor as told by Somers, “Richard was the only child to go to high school because in order to get a high school education in those days required a child to travel 17 miles to the next town to go to a boarding school called St. Kieran School. There was something special about Richard, and his family saw the need to send him off to learn more and to develop his compassionate spirit for people. In those days, most children just stayed at home and worked with their parents on the farm.”
Somers later attended Major Seminary at St. John’s in Waterford, where he completed his philosophy and theological studies.
After a summer weekend retreat when he was 18, Somers received the calling to priesthood. During seminary, he was asked by his recruiting priest about coming to Mississippi to serve. According to the story, Somers did not know where Mississippi was located, and he was told he was going was near the Gulf of Mexico. And so, while on his journey across the ocean, he thought he was going to be working in Mexico.
On Sept. 1, 1966, Somers arrived in Bay St. Louis, where he served at Our Lady of the Gulf for three years.
After a welcoming reception held by the local parishioners, the story reads, “Father Somers looked out the window and saw six crosses burning on the beach boulevard. He thought, ‘how kind of them to welcome me with burning crosses.’ Little did he know, it was the local Ku Klux Klan burning crosses because a young black man was arrested and thrown in jail for allegedly whistling at a white girl.”
The story also says Somers later went to the jail and helped the arrested young man get out of jail, which was only the beginning of his crusade to end the racial tension he witnessed throughout the state.
He went on to serve as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Fatima in Biloxi, Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg and St. Patrick in Meridian. In 1975, he became pastor of St. Therese in Jackson and later moved across town to become pastor of St. Richard.
While in Jackson, Somers co-founded Mission Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that works to build strength and unity in communities, despite race and denominations, throughout the state through prayer and worship.
A mark left in the Delta
Somers moved to Greenville in 1998, where he became a large influence in the community, in part, through the establishment of the Greenville Chapter of Mission Mississippi.
Somers also strongly believed in educating youth, a passion many in the community say was unwavering.
Somers retired Feb. 1, 2011.
Shortly after his retirement, Somers traveled back to Ireland for several months to visit his family.
After his trip home, Somers returned to Greenville to spend the rest of his retirement in a house behind St. Joseph school. As his health began to decline, he moved to St. Catherine’s Village in Jackson, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.
Catholic Schools Week
The first organized parish school in Greenville opened in October 1888. St. Rose of Lima Academy was opened under the leadership of Father P. J. Korstenbrock and was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. The school the sisters opened began a tradition of education in the Delta which has lasted more than a century.
Within three years, facilities were added to accommodate boarding students from nearby plantations. By the 1930s, enrollment in the school had grown to almost 200 students. By 1947, enrollment had increased to 245 with 39 percent of the school’s population being non-Catholic.
In 1948, due to the increasing enrollment and deteriorating condition of the academy building, work began on a new building. Originally designed to educate 400 students, St. Joseph School was dedicated in May 1950 by Bishop Richard Gerow. Located on Golf Street, the school served students in grades 1-12, and by the mid 1950s included one of the city’s first organized kindergarten programs.
Enrollment continued to rise into the 1960s. As a result of this increase, St. Joseph Catholic Church initiated the construction of Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, which opened on East Reed Road in 1964. After kindergarten through sixth grade moved to Lourdes, the building on Golf Street (now known as St. Joseph High School) provided students in grades 7-12 with a quality Catholic education. An increasing enrollment at St. Joseph in the late 1980s prompted the construction of four additional classrooms.
Past graduates can be proud of the young people who have received the legacy of a Catholic education. Like Somers, they hope to pass this legacy on to others in the decades to come.