Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 10, 2003
Catholic editor expounded social teaching
Fateful Passages: The Life of Henry Somerville, Catholic Journalist, Joseph Sinasac. Novalis: Ottawa, 2003. 154 pages. Papercover.
Review by GLEN ARGAN
It was almost astonishing to me to find a biography published on the life of an English Canadian Catholic journalist. And to find within its pages that journalist described as "for many years, particularly during the 1930s, the most influential layman in the English-speaking Catholic Church in Canada."
The Catholic press is not strong in Canada and, to a practitioner, it is heartening to see the life of one editor made the subject of a popular biography.
Henry Somerville lived an intriguing life. Born in 1889 and raised in the British industrial city of Leeds, he quickly developed a strong yearning for justice for the working class. In 1908, he founded the Catholic Socialist Society, a group that was promptly condemned by the local bishop in a pastoral letter.
Somerville then developed his life-long interest in the new Catholic social teaching and set out to make that teaching known both by the laity and the clergy. He worked for the Manchester Guardian but came to Toronto, at the entreaty of Archbishop Neil McNeil, in 1915 to write for the diocesan Catholic Register.
Somerville found Toronto even less accepting of his passion for Catholic social teaching than was England. A visit to England for Christmas 1918 led him to stay in his homeland for another 15 years. There, he met and married Margaret Cooper and began to raise a family.
He served as a correspondent for the Toronto Star and in 1929 visited the Soviet Union, a visit which deepened his mistrust of communism. He and McNeil remained close friends and in 1933, the archbishop convinced Somerville to return to Toronto as The Register's editor.
Somerville was a man of strong faith. He was unquestioningly faithful to the Church and sought to bring to fruition its social teachings through the written word and, indeed, in any way possible. He urged Catholics to break out of their intellectual ghetto. And he laboured to get Canada's bishops "to recognize that left-wing political parties could be legitimate avenues for promoting the social doctrine of the Church."
He did influence Church leaders and, likely to some extent, the Catholic faithful. Although Somerville died in 1953, he continues to influence the Church in Canada through his children, two of whom - Father Stephen Somerville and journalist Janet Somerville - have achieved some measure of prominence.
Joseph Sinasac, today's editor and publisher of The Catholic Register, follows in Somerville's footsteps. He is well placed to provide not only an accurate, but also an interesting, account of the earlier editor. Sinasac not only tells the story of Somerville's life, he provides historical context to help understand that life.
More people like Henry Somerville are needed - devout, faithful Catholics who are determined to see Church teaching affect the life of our nation. Such people are destined to be, at best, on the fringes of Canadians' awareness. But Sinasac shows they can be a force for good, however indirect that force might be.