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Obituary: The Rev. James E. Somma Jr. / Adoptive father was 'champion' for the needy

Friday, November 29, 2002

By Harry Tkach, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Rev. James E. Somma Jr., a Roman Catholic priest who became the adoptive father for two Vietnamese children, was a determined man.

"If he saw a need, he responded to that need," said the Rev. George A. Wilt, pastor of St. Bernard's Church in Mt. Lebanon and a classmate of Father Somma's at St. Vincent Major Seminary in Latrobe.

That it literally took an act of Congress for "Father Jim" to adopt his two youngsters and that he was awarded four military decorations for action above and beyond the call of duty, "speaks for itself," said Father Wilt.

"He saw an issue to be resolved and did it."

Father Somma died Tuesday at Marian Manor Nursing Home in Green Tree from complications of Parkinson's Disease. He was 68.

"Going through his papers and his [military] citations the last few days, I realized how much my brother was a champion for the needy," said his sister, Dolores R. Somma of Scott.

Father Somma was awarded the Vietnamese Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Air Force Commendation with four oak leaf clusters, according to his sister.

But children were his passion and he even contacted the U.S. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker, R-Pa. and head of the Senate intelligence committee, to sponsor a bill that allowed the priest to adopt 8-year-old Vu Dinh Son and his 4-year-old sister, Vu Thi Thuy.

The law at the time limited adoption of immigrant children to married couples. It has been changed to allow singles to adopt.

Father Somma adopted the two youngsters July 4, 1970, and the children's names were anglicized to Peter and Maria.

The priest retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel and served parishes in Reserve, South Park, West Mifflin and Pitcairn.

"He was the type of person that you couldn't say anything bad about. He was actually like what most people think a priest ought to be," said Mary Lou Wagner of West Mifflin, who was a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in that community.

"Once, he walked down from the rectory with his snowblower and dug our family out," she said.

Wagner said Father Somma once confided to her family that a priest raising two children was no problem in the military but required an adjustment when he was first discharged. "When he was here, everyone just took it in stride," she said.

After graduating from St. Vincent College and Seminary, Father Somma earned a master's degree in education at Michigan State University.

He also was a parent effectiveness training instructor and a certified marriage counselor.

He and Father Wilt were ordained May 30, 1959, in St. Paul's Cathedral, Oakland -- the first class ordained by then-Bishop John Wright, who later became a cardinal.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by his children, Peter of Canonsburg and Maria King of Pittsburgh; and four grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday at the Slater Funeral Home, 1650 Greentree Road, Scott. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Grace Church, also in Scott. Burial will be in Queen of Heavens Cemetery.

Harry Tkach can be reached at htkach@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1987.

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