By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 5, 2010
Soft classical music flows through the office space of Sister Louise Sommer, CSJ, as she joyfully works at her computer in St. Lawrence Church. This year is her 60th as a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and by the smile on her face it is evident she still enjoys her work.
Currently a pastoral associate for outreach ministries at the Lawrenceville parish, Sister Louise reflected on her decades of service to the Church and its people. Thirty-six of her 60 years as a sister have been spent in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
When she was a young girl growing up in St. Louis, sisters in habits were nothing out of the ordinary. She first encountered sisters in her school.
“I was taught by the sisters, and I liked the sisters,” she said. “The sisters were always happy doing whatever they did, and somehow I felt called to join them.”
“God has reinforced that call over the years because I think I have been doing the things that he wants me to do, and enjoying them while I’m doing them,” she said.
And Sister Louise has done it all, from teaching in elementary schools and high schools, to serving as a chaplain at Saint Joseph Hospital and in ministry to street people, to instructing converts to Catholicism through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
She joined the congregation right out of high school in September 1949 and the following year she received the habit, taking her initial vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“And that’s where we start counting our years,” she said, smiling.
The oldest of three children born to Henry and Lu Sommer, she has a brother, Arthur, and a sister, Joann. Her Catholic home life probably presaged how her parents would react to her vocation.
“I don’t think my parents were very surprised when I told them about entering the convent,” she said. “They were always supportive and encouraged me.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Sister Louise taught young students, taking on the job that inspired her to join the congregation in the first place.
She came to Atlanta in 1966 to teach at St. Pius X High School, where she stayed for 11 years. She later returned to St. Louis but came back to Atlanta in 1985 as the religious education director at Holy Cross Church for five years and then at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church for seven. In 1998, she became a pastoral associate at St. Lawrence Church.
“The sisters can do anything,” Sister Louise said. “I do pretty much whatever needs to be done. I work with the elderly. I coordinate the funerals. I take care of the bereavement programs. I work with the AIDS ministry.”
“I like what I do and I do what I like,” she added.
Sister Louise has earned various degrees and certificates, giving her a wide range of skills to serve the Church. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Fontbonne University and a master’s degree in English from St. Louis University, both in St. Louis, Mo. She later earned certification as a secondary school principal. While serving as a chaplain with Mercy Mobile Services in the Edgewood area of Atlanta, she completed clinical pastoral education units.
Since first arriving in Atlanta over 40 years ago, Sister Louise has watched the local church grow and blossom into the thriving community it is today.
“When I came in ’66, you knew every sister and every priest and there weren’t that many of us,” she said. “St. Pius was the end of the world, the end of the expressway.”
Now she has seen firsthand the explosion of Catholics in North Georgia and the diverse presence of people from every culture at almost every Mass.
“It’s like heaven,” said Sister Louise, smiling.
If one looks at the six decades of service that Sister Louise has given to the Catholic Church, it is easy to see how important women religious are in the life of American Catholicism. From educating the youth, to preparing adults for entry into the Church, there is no denying the impact that sisters have had, even if they sometimes go unnoticed.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about that because I don’t think we are always valued. But I know here I am (valued),” said Sister Louise. “I think the role of women in the Church, not just religious women, is very important. If you were to take the congregation and just separate the congregation and not have women, who would be there?”
She has formed bonds with the other women religious serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, but holds a special place in her heart for Sister Margaret McAnoy, IHM, with whom she has lived for the past 20 or so years.
“Sister Margaret McAnoy and I have been friends since our early days at St. Pius,” said Sister Louise. “Living and working there, with many different religious communities, allowed us to know and love many traditions we share as religious women in the church. At one point, there were sisters from six religious communities on the faculty.”
“Margaret and I are good friends and we support and challenge each other to be our best selves,” she continued. “Prayer and reading are important to both of us. We enjoy sharing these with each other. We also like theater, playing cards and games with our friends. We are blessed with many friends.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have been serving the American Church since eight sisters first arrived in 1836 after the first bishop of St. Louis asked for sisters who would undertake the teaching of deaf-mutes.
This group of sisters founded the Carondelet congregation, a non-cloistered community. Two convents were eventually established, one in Cahokia, Ill., and one in Carondelet, a village near St. Louis, where the sisters founded a school for deaf students in 1837. The St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf is still in operation today.
The congregation of women religious originated in 1650 in LePuy-Velay, France, according to their website. Dedicated to “the practice of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable,” the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are now serving across the country, from New York to California, and throughout the world, including a presence in Chile, Peru, Uganda and Japan.
Sister Louise prays that her congregation will continue to be strong in the future.
The community is accepting a new novice this year, with another woman beginning the process of discernment. She continues to pray for young women to consider vocations to the religious life and offered some advice for those in the process of discernment.
“You need to listen to your heart, listen to your God,” she said.
“While we don’t have numbers, we have quality,” said Sister Louise about her congregation. “I don’t see us dying. I see us living and being all we can be.”