Janet Somerville, as captured above in her Toronto home by Michael Swan. The talented Catholic journalist, one of the first lay women to receive a theology degree from the University of St. Michael’s College and former general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches passed away April 16, 2023. Michael Swan

Janet Somerville, Catholic everywoman

  • April 26, 2023

Janet Somerville was a truly great Catholic journalist, but she was so much more. General secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, called upon often by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Jesuit Forum to make papal encyclicals and core Catholic issues understandable and appealing in their publications, editor of the Catholic New Times, a member of the Order of Canada, CBC producer and one of the first lay women ever to receive a theology degree from the University of St. Michael’s College, Janet Somerville was the embodiment and exemplar of Canada’s brand of Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council.

She died in the wee hours of April 16, at the end of a four-year struggle with dementia.

Born in the summer of 1938, Ms. Somerville grew up in the heart of the Church of Toronto. Her father, Henry Somerville, was the longest serving editor in the history of The Catholic Register. Two of her brothers, Peter and Stephen, entered the priesthood. She came of age studying and commenting on the Second Vatican Council.

“I grew up in this utterly Catholic household where everybody was focused on the apostolate,” Ms. Somerville told The Catholic Register in 2018. “And I did grow up thinking that we were more Catholic than… (pauses) maybe not more Catholic than the Pope, but more Catholic than most people. I emerged into working life with a sense that it was normal for me to go around the country giving talks on the connection between faith and social justice.”

A half-century on from her days as a young Catholic genius popping up at parishes and conferences to explain the Church to the Church, she thought better of all that youthful expertise so generously shared.

“Although I did that with real enthusiasm for both faith and social justice, there was also a sense that I was bringing light to the masses deceived by consumerism and advertising,” she said. “There was really quite a lot of the sins of the Pharisees involved. So there I was praying a few months ago that God will preserve my memory and all of a sudden it occurred to me that if I lost my memory all those pharisaical temptations of thinking I was more enlightened than most people would just — they would go away. They would be utterly irrelevant. They wouldn’t be there.”

That sort of disciplined introspection and thinking through prayer was a part of who Ms. Somerville was. It would be impossible to imagine that she had never considered the married life, but equally unthinkable that she hadn’t very deliberately chosen her vocation to the single life. People she worked with at the CBC radio program Ideas thought of her as a “lay nun.” Which is how she almost ended up becoming Martin Luther King’s speechwriter.

Hired in 1965 as one of the first producers at Ideas, her CBC co-workers naturally turned to her when Lewis Auerbach suggested they should try to have the Rev. Martin Luther King deliver the 1967 Massey Lecture series.

“Janet, being the most spiritual among us, volunteered to contact him,” Auerbach told The Catholic Register.

In those days it was done by post. Ms. Somerville wrote a letter that got the world-famous American preacher of Christian non-violence interested in delivering his message on a Canadian radio program. There were race riots raging in cities across the United States that summer when Ms. Somerville wrote to King, “This summer’s harsh new evidence (on several continents) has made the case for non-violence harder to hear.”

She spoke King’s language, Auerbach said.

“He fell in love with her letter in that fundamental way. The letter really pulled it off,” he said.

“I got King intuitively,” Ms. Somerville told CBC reporter Stephen Smith in 2014. “And he got me intuitively.”

After the lectures aired, King offered Ms. Somerville a job ghostwriting speeches and texts, but at the time she was caring for her very ill mother (also dementia). She asked King whether he could wait until the fall of 1968. In the spring of 1968 King was murdered.

Ms. Somerville always knew she had met a prophet. As she told Smith in 2014, “Prophets are people who stand in the turmoil of history and communicate to their brothers and sisters some aspect of God’s vision of what’s going on in the human world at that time… of course King was a prophet.”

The grace, clarity and power of Ms. Somerville’s prose propelled the tiny, upstart independent Catholic New Times into national prominence in the decade between 1987 and 1997. Though the paper had started as a reaction against a rightward-leaning Catholic Register under editor and general manager Larry Henderson, Ms. Somerville took the little weekly beyond mere opposition.

The Catholic New Times was a corporal work of passion.

“For many years, Janet and I worked together to publish a newspaper that would reflect the hopes and fears of Vatican II, the dreams and despair of the Church of the poor,” Romero House co-founder and Catholic New Times founding editor Mary Jo Leddy said in an email. “Worked together? It was often more like a wrestling match. In the process, we put away the desire to win and found the desire to serve.”

“When she was at the Catholic New Times, we were respectful rivals,” said former Catholic Register editor and Novalis publishing director Joseph Sinasac. “I always had a lot of respect for her as someone who was a very passionate Catholic voice for the dispossessed, for the poor, for the stranger.”

Sinasac’s respect for her extended to having Somerville deliver The Catholic Register’s annual Henry Somerville Lecture.

“She was an amazing public speaker — I think passionate, but also compassionate,” said Sinasac.

At 58, after 10 arduous years editing the tiny, financially fragile New Times, Ms. Somerville thought she was ready to retire and booked herself a retreat at a Benedictine convent in Massachusetts. But on her way out the door she caught sight of the Canadian Council of Churches’ help wanted ad.

She became the first woman and first Catholic to run the day-to-day affairs of one of the world’s broadest and most diverse ecumenical groupings of churches at a time when the CCC was struggling to recapture its sense of purpose. The council wanted to contribute substantively to debate and struggles for justice in Canada, but to imagine that Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches all understood the really difficult issues of sexuality, abortion, economic justice and militarism in the same way was impossible.

To get past this, the CCC in 1996 adopted a “forum model.” Churches would only sign onto letters or endorse positions that they truly believed. The council itself would not speak on issues on behalf of churches unless there was unanimity. Then in 1997 the council hired Ms. Somerville. As she sat down in her new office, the forum model was a grand theory but no one knew whether it would work. Between 1997 and 2002, Ms. Somerville made sure it worked.

“Janet, until today, sits on my shoulder, whispering in my ear,” said current Canadian Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Peter Noteboom in an email. “She and her spirit have informed every jot and tittle of the Council.”

Ms. Somerville was a life-long member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and helped found its chapter of Development and Peace-Caritas Canada. She loved her parish. As she faced the reality of her failing memory, she was certain she could rely on her parish.

“The parish mission is going on right now. I’ve noticed on my way out on the first two evenings I was warmly hugged by several people. Two or three of them, I had no idea who they were,” she told The Catholic Register. “The general atmosphere — especially at something like the mission, which only pretty convinced parishioners come to — the atmosphere is so warm that even if I haven’t got a clue who the person is, being hugged seems quite normal.”

Ms. Somerville’s funeral Mass was celebrated at Lourdes on April 22.

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