29 September 2021

The centuries-old links
between USPG and
the Diocese of Limerick

With Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland and the Revd Duncan Dormor of USPG at a recent USPG conference … the Diocese of Limerick has centuries-old links with SPG and USPG

Patrick Comerford

The Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe has a long link with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). I found this one of the attractive parts of diocesan life when I was invited to move to this diocese in 2017, and those links were expressed for some years in the close links with the Diocese of Swaziland in Eswatini and Bishop Elinah Wamukoya, who died earlier this year (21 January 2021) due to complications caused by Covid-19.

I have just completed a six-year term as a trustee of USPG, and was a member of the USPG council for about five years before that. During the diocesan synod last weekend, Bishop Kenneth Kearon pointed out that the links between this diocese and USPG were in place when he came to the diocese. He suggested those links had been developed by Bishop Michael Mayes, a former USPG missionary, who was Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe in 2000-2008.

Bishop Michael worked with USPG in Japan in 1968-1974, and when he returned to Ireland he was USPG Area Secretary for Ireland (1974-1975) and USPG Area Secretary for Cashel, Cork, Limerick and Tuam (1975-1993), until he was elected Bishop of Kilmore in 1993.

However, the links between USPG and this diocese date back long before that.

Harry Vere White (1853-1941) was elected Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe 100 years ago on this day, 29 September 1921. He was an SPG missionary in New Zealand in 1880-1875. When he returned to Ireland, he was the organising secretary of SPG in Ireland for six years (1894-1900). During those years, he lived at 3 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, later known as Overseas House when I worked there in 2002-2006.

He later became Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s, Ballsbridge (1905-1918), where he conducted the marriage of Philip Henry Comerford and Mary Harvey on 5 October 1907. Their children included the Revd Philip Henry Comerford (1909-2006), a missionary in Paraguay who later moved to Canada and was the father of Archdeacon Henry Comerford.

Harry Vere White was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (1918-1921), when he was elected Bishop of Limerick in 1921. He was consecrated in Christ Church on 18 October 1921 and was enthroned in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, two days later on 20 October.

Bishop Vere White’s short history of SPG in Ireland, Children of Saint Columba, provides an interesting account of many of the early Irish missionaries who worked with SPG, including many from these dioceses.

One of my predecessors in Askeaton had strongly family links with USPG when it was SPG (the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) in the 19th century, and another predecessor in Kilnaughtin was an SPG missionary in Central America for two years and then spent seven years in Southern Africa as an SPG missionary.

The Revd Willoughby William Townley Balfour (1801-1888) was Vicar of Askeaton from 1833 to 1837. He was the second son of Blayney Townley-Balfour or Blayney Townley Balfour (1769–1856), who came from a long line of politicians, and who was MP for Belturbet when the Act of Union was passed in 1800. Blayney Townley-Balfour owned a large flour mill near Slane, Co Meath, and he who commissioned the architect Francis Johnston to rebuild Townley Hall, the family seat on the banks of the Boyne, between Drogheda and Slane.

Blayney Townley-Balfour married Florence Cole, and they had 10 children. Their eldest son, also Blayney Townley-Balfour (1799-1882), was Governor of the Bahamas from 1833 to 1835, while their second son was the Revd Willoughby William Townley Balfour. Willoughby was born in 1801 at Townley Hall and went to school at Harrow before entering Trinity College Dublin in 1819. He graduated BA in 1823 and was ordained deacon in 1829 and priest in 1832.

Willoughby Balfour became Vicar of Askeaton in May 1833, and held that post until 1837, when his successor was the Revd George Maxwell, who worked tirelessly and ceaselessly in the parish during the Great Famine.

Balfour became Vicar of Stone Flanville, Leicestershire, where he remained until 1878. When he retired, he returned to Ireland and died in Rostrevor, Co Down, on 29 June 1888.

His elder brother, Blayney Townley-Balfour (1799-1882), was Lieutenant Governor of the Bahamas (1833-1835). He too was born in Townley Hall, and later inherited the family home.

His first son, Blayney Reynell Townley Balfour, was born in Townley Hall on 15 April 1845. But the family found the climate in the Bay of Naples was more amenable than the Irish climate, and they moved to Sorrento, where their second son, Francis Richard Townley Balfour, was born ion 21 June 1846.

Like their uncle Willoughby, the two Balfour brothers went to school in Harrow, where their younger contemporaries included a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Thomas Davidson (1848-1903), a future secretary of SPG, Bishop Henry Hutchinson Montgomery (1847-1932) from Co Donegal, the slum priest Father Robert Dolling (1851-1902) from Co Down, and a much younger Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932), whose parents were from Ireland.

From Harrow, Francis Balfour went on to Trinity College Cambridge, graduating BA in 1869, and trained for ordination at Cuddesdon College, Oxford. In 1872, the year he received his MA from Cambridge, he was ordained deacon, and he was ordained priest in 1874 by the Bishop of Oxford.

He was a curate in Buckingham for three years until 1875, and then moved to Southern Africa as a missionary with SPG. He first worked in the Orange Free State, as a bishop’s chaplain on the diamond diggings with the miners in Kimberley, lecturing in a theological college in Bloemfontein, and as a parish rector and cathedral canon. He then went to Mashonaland in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he built the first Anglican church in Fort Salisbury (now Harare).

He later moved to Basutoland (present-day Lesotho), where he was the Director of the Mission of the Epiphany in Sekuba (1894-1898). Throughout all this time he preached in Sesotho and translated the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Sesotho.

He regularly returned home to Ireland when he was on leave, and when ill-health forced him to return home in 1900-1901, he acted as an honorary curate in All Saints’ Parish in Raheny, Dublin, where the rector, the Revd Francis Carlile Harper (1838-1931), was known for his missionary interests and was father-in-law of Herbert Packenham Walsh, the Irish missionary bishop in Assam.

In Raheny, Balfour had a profound influence on the rector’s daughter, Dr Marie Elizabeth Hayes, who went to work with the Dublin University Mission in Chota Nagpur in 1905, and died as a medical missionary in Saint Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi, in 1908.

When Balfour returned to South Africa from Raheny in 1901, he became the Archdeacon of Bloemfontein (1901-1906) and then Archdeacon of Basutoland (1908-1922). When he was consecrated in Cape Town as an Assistant Bishop for the Diocese of Bloemfontein in 1911, he was effectively the first Anglican Bishop of Lesotho.

He was proud of his Irish identity and heritage, and there is a wonderful photograph of him from 1914 in a mitre and cope decorated in shamrocks and ‘Celtic’ designs.

When Balfour retired in 1923, there was no question of going back to Sorrento. He returned to Ireland, but died shortly afterwards in Shankill, Co Dublin, on 3 February 1924. He is buried in the grounds of Mellifont Abbey, Co Louth – the ruins of Mellifont had been owned by his family for generations.

In this group of parishes too, the Revd James Napier Clarke (1870-1934) was the curate of Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, in 1905-1908. He had previously served with SPG in Southern Africa for about seven years. He was born in 1870, the son of the Revd Dr JW Clarke, and His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle and great-uncle were priests in the Church of Ireland.

Clarke was a missionary in the Diocese of Honduras (1896-1897) and in Belize (1897-1898), before going to Southern Africa with SPG in 1898. There he was a missionary in Kaffraria (1898-1905), where he worked as a chaplain in Saint John’s College (1893-1903), Headmaster of Saint Cuthbert’s School, Tsolo (1904), and Rector of Port Saint John’s (1904-1905). When he returned to Ireland, he worked first as Curate of Kilnaughtin (1905-1908), and later worked in parishes in the dioceses of Ardfert, Ferns, Glendalough and Kildare until his death on 13 April 1934.

Another SPG missionary in Southern Africa with connections with the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe was Nurse Rosanna (Rose) Blennerhassett (ca 1840-1907). She was a daughter of Sir Arthur Blennerhassett (1794-1849) of Churchtown, near Killarney, Co Kerry. Her uncle and great-uncle were priests in the Church of Ireland, and her brother, Sir Rowland Blennerhassett (1839-1909), was MP for Galway and Co Kerry.

She was a nurse with SPG in the Diocese of Mashonaland (1891-1893), and she was the co-author, with Lucy Sleeman, of Adventures in Mashonaland by two hospital nurses (London, Macmillan, 1893). She died in 1907, 14 years before Bishop Harry Vere White came to this diocese.

A portrait of Bishop Harry Vere White has a place of prominence in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, among the portraits of bishops and deans in the Chapter Room and the dean’s office.

Bishop Harry Vere White … worked for SPG before becoming Bishop of Limerick on this day 100 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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