Jesuit Father Solomon I. “Sam” Sara was called to eternal life on August 8, 2016, at Campion Center, Weston, Massachusetts.
Fr. Sara was born on May 1, 1930, in Mangaish, a Christian/Muslim village in the Chaldean/Aramaic-speaking area of northern Iraq. He was the oldest of three brothers; one remained in Baghdad where he died several years ago, the other settled in the U.S. and survives Fr. Sara. Their mother died when Fr. Sara was 10 and when he approached high-school age his father sent him to live with a cousin who worked as a cook at Baghdad College, the secondary school conducted by New England Jesuits since the 1930s. Fr. Sara lived with his uncle’s family in a building on the school grounds and was enrolled as a student. Though his father wanted Fr. Sara to be a doctor and the 1950 yearbook said he would most likely become a mechanical engineer, by the time he graduated he had decided to enter the Jesuits. He arrived at Shadowbrook, the New England Province novitiate in Lenox, Massachusetts, on Sept. 23, 1950.
After first vows, he studied in the juniorate at Shadowbrook for two years, then studied philosophy at Weston College (1954-1957). He returned to Baghdad College for regency (1957-1960). There he taught religion, English, and math and had the multiple added assignments that were typical of a scholastic’s life: supervising the library, overseeing the junior boarding school, working in catechetical centers the church offered to public-school students, and even serving as the Chaldean Patriarch’s secretary for ecumenical affairs.
He returned to Weston to study theology and was ordained there in June 1963. A year later he did tertianship at Pomfret, Conn. By then superiors had identified him as a likely faculty member for the newly opened Al-Hikma University in Baghdad and he was assigned to doctoral studies at Georgetown’s School of Linguistics.
In 1968, as Fr. Sara was beginning the final year of his doctoral program, the Ba’athist party came to power in Iraq and, in October, expelled all American Jesuits from Al Hikma and, the following spring, from Baghdad College. Fr. Sara was then assigned to teach linguistics at Georgetown, where he would remain for more than four decades.
His academic work focused on the ways Arabs studied their language, in particular the analytic model of an eighth-century grammarian, Sibawayhi, and its relevance to modern students learning Arabic. He published widely in different areas of linguistics, was one of the first scholars to study the grammar of his native Chaldean/Aramaic, and even assembled dictionaries of African languages. The U.S. Army commissioned him to produce multi-volume instructional courses in modern standard Arabic and in the Iraqi dialect for their famed language school in Monterey, California.
At Georgetown he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in linguistics, directed doctoral dissertations, and served a term as chair. For years he said Mass daily in a nearby parish, for which he enjoyed crafting homilies. He was a keen tennis player, enjoyed rebuilding non-functioning televisions, and was an avid gardener, especially at the Jesuit community’s house on Chesapeake Bay where he kept the grounds in good order. He was especially pleased to have planted, with the help of a Jesuit friend, two fig trees near the old Georgetown community residence — later transplanted as full-grown trees to the site of the new residence — whose produce he gave to his wide circle of friends in the area. He had an engaging sense of humor and was a regular at what some considered the liveliest table in the community dining room.
He retired from the Georgetown faculty in 2013 and returned to the place where he had studied philosophy and theology more than 50 years earlier, now Campion Health Center, in Weston. Mobility issues gradually limited him to a wheelchair but he was an eager participant in musical exercise classes, video courses, language games and word puzzles and continued to pursue his scholarly interests with the help of a former student. In recent months his body was clearly weakening but his death from a heart attack in the early evening of Aug. 8, 2016, was unexpected.