Legacy Society Profile
On November 18, 2012, a longtime friend of Thomas Aquinas College and a member of the Legacy Society, Rev. Msgr. Jerome O. Sommer, died at the age of 97. For 72 years, Msgr. Sommer had faithfully lived out his vocation as a priest — a calling that brought him to the far corners of the world during 29 years as a chaplain in the United States Army.
Signs of Msgr. Sommer’s vocation first became evident in the fifth grade when, as an altar boy, he eagerly served the 6:00 a.m. daily Mass at his local parish and volunteered to serve at weddings and funerals whenever possible. He was, as an obituary described it, “enamored of churches and being near the altar.” One year later, he announced that he intended to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother, then a seminarian. He went on to attend junior and major seminary for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1940.
His first priestly assignments were as a hospital chaplain and as an associate pastor, but the nature of Msgr. Sommer’s ministry changed following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The young priest quickly volunteered for the military chaplaincy, and in early 1945, the Archbishop of Saint Louis, John Cardinal Glennon, instructed him to apply for a commission.
Although it was the start of World War II that drew him to the military, Msgr. Sommer never actually served in that war. After completing his training and receiving his commission, he was on a troop ship headed for the Philippines — where, be believed, he would be part of the U.S. invasion force of the Japanese mainland — when word arrived of the Japanese surrender. Instead he served as part of the Occupation Army, the beginning of nearly three decades of military life, during which time he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and completed tours of duty in Hawaii, Germany, Korea, Turkey, and Vietnam.
A servant to those who served their country, Msgr. Sommer was adamant that he was, first and foremost, a priest. In 1955, an Armed Forces radio interviewer made the mistake of offhandedly saying to him, “So you have chosen the Army as your career?” — to which Msgr. Sommer offered a swift correction. “The Army is not my career, no matter how many years I spend in it,” he explained. “My career was already well established before I entered the Army. In Catholic circles we call it our ‘vocation.’ My vocation — career if you will — is to be a priest. It remains so whether I am on duty in the military or in civilian life.”
Upon leaving the Army in 1974, Msgr. Sommer became the pastor of a church on a military base south of St. Louis until his retirement in 1986. For the remainder of his years, he lived in the Regina Cleri residence for retired priests of the St. Louis Archdiocese, serving local parishes as needed, and making the 800+ mile drive every summer to visit friends in the Washington, D.C., area. In 2010 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI named him one of the “Apostolic Protonotaries Supernumerary,” the highest level among monsignors.
It was around the time of his retirement that Msgr. Sommer first became acquainted with Thomas Aquinas College. “When we spoke, he could no longer remember exactly how he had heard of the College,” says Director of Gift Planning Tom Susanka. “He was pretty sure that he had read about it in some magazine, or several magazines. He said that he admired the College, and supported it, because of its fidelity to the Church and because of the remarkable number of priestly vocations among our graduates.”
Msgr. Sommer was, over the decades, a loyal and consistent benefactor of Thomas Aquinas College, giving many gifts, some small, some large. He also purchased a sizable annuity, which provided him with a modest income in his later years, and the College with a generous gift at the time of his death.
That annuity, it turns out, was just one of many that Msgr. Sommer had provided for in his estate planning. “When speaking with the executor of his estate, I learned that Monsignor had set up a score of such funds, designating Catholic charitable organizations as the beneficiaries of every one,” says Mr. Susanka. “Apparently he was as committed to serving the Church in his death as he was throughout his life.”
Posted: February 25, 2013
Msgr. Sommer with the troops in Korea in 1954
“We’re aiming for the truth in all we learn here, and developing the skills to apply that truth. This formation will keep me strong for life.”
– Aileen McCarthy (’14)
“Thomas Aquinas College is lending a helpful hand to the Church to fulfill her mission. There is no doubt that this Christian environment that is nurtured here is the main cause why there have been so many responses to the call of God to the priesthood and to the consecrated life in the female and male students of your College.”
– Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski
Congregation for Catholic Education