By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 5, 2019
LAWRENCEVILLE—Sister Louise Sommer’s ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta hasn’t been one thing, it has been events and people blending one to another, from the classroom and an AIDS shelter to holding hands with grieving families to organizing outings for senior citizens.
She points to artwork hanging in her cozy office, where a quilt is folded on a wingback chair, for inspiration from Isaiah the prophet—“All things are being made anew.”
After nearly a lifetime in Atlanta, the St. Louis native and member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is returning to her Missouri community.
With all the years and all the people, Sister Louise has an abundance of memories to draw on. Ministering to people living with AIDS and befriending people who are transgender was one of the ministries to broaden her understanding of God and faith.
“That was a stretching year and a good year,” she said. “God’s been good to me.”
Packing is hard. She’s lived here for close to 50 years. She’s the last of a handful of religious sisters from diverse communities to move out of a rented apartment as they returned to their congregation’s respective motherhouses. Sister Louise said she and her peers arrived when there was a need, but now other religious communities and laypeople are filling the gaps.
In 1966, when she arrived in Atlanta, there were 220 religious sisters serving. In the 2018 Official Catholic Directory, the number was 85.
Her first position in Atlanta was teaching at St. Pius X High School, where she stayed for 11 years. She returned to St. Louis but came back to Atlanta in 1985 as the religious education director at Holy Cross Church, then at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. In 1998, she became a pastoral associate at St. Lawrence Church and has accompanied many people through grief and good times. Along the way, Sister Louise earned various degrees and certificates to help her serve others.
A friend and mentor to others
Kelly Schreckenberger, who has worked at St. Lawrence Church with Sister Louise since 1999, said the religious sister with “her very presence brings comfort.”
“She brings a sense of peace and God’s joy to everything she does. Whether it is dealing with someone experiencing loss or joy she always has a kind word and a smile. She is a friend to so many and a mentor to others,” Schreckenber said in an email.
It’s not unusual to hear the sister reciting the well-known quote of St. Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Joyce Todman, 90, remembered when Sister Louise grieved with her when Todman’s daughter died in a car crash.
“She held my hand and let me cry. It was really a great comfort to me,” Todman said. “She made sure I got food and I didn’t have to cook anything.”
Her gift is an ability to focus deeply on the person in front of her and their needs, said Todman.
“You think you are the special one. But she makes everybody feel special,” she said.
Sister Louise is approaching 70 years as a religious sister. She joined the teaching congregation only months after her high school graduation in September 1949 and the following year made her initial vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Born in St. Louis, she is the oldest of three siblings. Her father, Henry Sommer, worked as a carpenter. Her mother, Lu Sommer, raised the children. Her family life and the neighborhood parish were intertwined as she grew up taught by sisters.
Eight members of her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, arrived in America in 1836 to first teach people who were deaf. The St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf is still in operation today. The congregation of women religious began in 1650 in LePuy-Velay, France, according to their website.