11 August 2022

Thomas Comerford Lawler and
Father Ronald Lawler, brothers
and US Catholic theologians

Father Ronald Lawler (the Revd Dr David Comerford Lawler) ... a Capuchin friar and leading American theologian

Patrick Comerford

The brothers Thomas Comerford Lawler and Father Ronald Lawler (David Comerford Lawler) were two leading Catholic theologians and patristic scholars in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Thomas Comerford Lawler was a leading officer in the CIA before attention to patristic studies and becoming a prominent lay theologian. His brother, Father Ronald Lawler, was a Capuchin friar and at one time the only American member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy.

For many years, because of the conjunction of the Comerford Lawler names and the many doctors in the family, I wondered whether they were related to the Comerford Lawler family of Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford.

However, in my recent researches, while I have been able to trace their family back to James Comerford, who emigrated from Ireland to New York in the 1830s, I have been unable to pinpoint which branch of the Comerford family this James Comerford is descended from. This family included many medical doctors, a highly-decorated US naval officer, a senior CIA officer, and these two prominent theologians.

So far, my research on these Comerford Lawler brothers takes me back to:

JAMES COMERFORD (ca 1810 – post 1853). He was born in Ireland ca 1810 and later emigrated to the US, living in Chemung, New York. He married Hannah … before 1839 and they were the parents of six children:

1, Mary, born ca 1839.
2, Patrick Comerford (ca 1840-post 1921), born ca 1840, died post 1921.
3, Catharine, born ca 1847.
4, Hannah (1850-1921), of whom next.
5, Elizabeth, born ca 1851, married … Nelson.
6, Margaret, born ca 1853, married … Noonan.

The second named daughter and fourth child was:

HANNAH COMERFORD (1850-1921). She was born in Burlington, Vermont, on 1 March 1850, and lived in Elmira for most of her life. She married Thomas H Lawler (1849-1919), of Elmira, Chemung County, New York, in 1872. Thomas Lawler was born in August 1849 in Massachusetts, to Irish-born parents, and grew up in Longmeadow, Hampden, and Boston, Massachusetts.

Thomas Lawler died in 1919; Hannah (Comerford) Lawler died on 5 March 1921 in the family home at 600 West Clinton Street.

Thomas and Hannah were the parents of four sons and a daughter:

1, Leo Thomas Lawler (1878-1944), of whom next.

2, Dr Albert J Lawler (ca 1878-post 1921) of Niagara Falls New York. He married Mary … and they were the parents of at least one son:

• 1a, Leo Thomas Lawler (ca 1905-ca 2000) of Niagara Falls. He married Kathleen Hewitt (1912-2005), and they were the parents of Robert Lawler (born 1935).

3, Dr Arthur V Lawler of Niagara Falls.

4, Dr Robert James Lawler (1883-1942), MD, of the US Navy. He born in Elmira, New York, on 1 July 1883. He was commissioned on 8 May 1917 into the New York Naval Militia with the rank of Assistant Surgeon, Lieutenant, and later was assigned to the National Naval Volunteers and the US Naval Reserve Forces. He arrived in France on 2 September 1918 as a Battalion Surgeon in the Marines and soon found himself in combat. He was awarded a Navy Cross ‘for Extraordinary Heroism in the attack on St Mihiel, 12-16 September 1918 and east of Rheims 1-9 October 1918 (Blanc Mont & Vierzy) and in the attack on the Argonne, 1-11 November 1918.’

He was later awarded the Silver Star Medal with a Large Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart Medal (# 645), the American Defense Medal, the Victory Medal, the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Palm. Dr Lawler later served as a Regimental Surgeon.

He remained in the US Navy after World War I, receiving a regular commission in 1921. He served aboard USS Nevada, USS Pennsylvania and with the Garde de Haiti . He was retired due to physical disability in 1930. He became a Lieutenant Commander on the retired list in 1936. He was recalled to active service early in World War II and was promoted to Commander in March 1942. He died of heart failure on 1 October 1942, aged 59, in Elmira, New York.

5, Frances Lawler of Elmira, who did not marry.

The first named son:

LEO THOMAS COMERFORD LAWLER (1878-1944), of 214 Fayette Street, Cumberland, Maryland. He was born on 13 December 1878, in Elmira, Chemung County, New York. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He was the city electrician in Cumberland, Maryland, and later worked in real estate until 1929.

He married Lillian-Marie Wilhelmina Laing (1891-1960), daughter of Frederick Joseph Laing (1849-1904) and Catherine (Long) Laing (1854-1913).

Leo and Lillian were the parents of six children, three sons and three daughters:[1]

1, Mary Catherine (1917-2008), of Berlin, Maryland. Born 30 November 1917, Cumberlamd; she married John Anthony Busch (1913-1992) of Cincinnati, Ohio; she died 7 August 2008 in in Charles Town, Jefferson County, West Virginia.

2, (Dr) Thomas Comerford Lawler, of Sterling, Virginia (1920-2006), theologian and patristic scholar, of whom next.

3, (The Revd Dr) David Comerford Lawler (1926-2003), born in Cumberland, Maryland. As Father Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap, he was a Capuchin friar and a distinguished theologian. (See below)

4, Lillian M Lawler (died before 2003).

5, Frances Laing (1924-1998), married Wilton Anthony Baker of Cleveland, Ohio.

6, Albert (‘Bert’) G Comerford Lawler (1930-1991). Born in Cumberland, Maryland, 1930, died in Cumberland 22 August 1991.

The brothers Thomas Comerford Lawler and Father Ronald Lawler (David Comerford Lawler) were co-authors with Bishop Donald Wuerl of ‘The Teaching of Christ’ (1976)

The first son:

THOMAS COMERFORD LAWLER (1920-2005). Theologian and patristic scholar, of Sterling, Virginia. He was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on 19 December 1920, and was educated at Saint Fidelis Capuchin Seminary, Herman, Pennsylvania. He joined the US army in World War II, and was in the US army engineers from 1943 to 1946. He worked for the CIA for 26 years from 1951 to 1977 and received the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit.[2]

He was president of the Federation of Catholic Parent-Teacher Organisations in Northern Virginia (1968-1970), and was one of six lay members of the National Catechetical Directory committee (1972-1978).[3]

From 1964 to 1991, he was co-editor of the Ancient Christian Writers series of translations from Latin and Greek, published by the Paulist Press, and in that series translated S. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany and The Letters of Saint Jerome (1963), Origen: Treatise on the Passover and Dialogue with Heraclides (1992), Saint Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies (1992).

He was co-author of The Teaching of Christ (1976) with his brother, Father Ronald Lawler, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. He was co-author of The Letters of Saint Jerome and The Teaching of Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 1995), and The Gift of Faith (2001).

He was appointed director of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington in 1978. He served on the National Catechetical Directory committee, the board of directors of the Arlington Catholic Herald newspaper and the board of Catholic Charities.[4]

He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Saint Joseph’s College, Standish, ME, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute, Arlington. He received from Pope John Paul II awarded him the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 2001.

After a long career in the CIA, he received the Intelligence Medal of Merit. A friend said: ‘He was perhaps the only man in history to earn his country’s highest award for spying and his Church’s highest award recognising the achievements of a layman.’[5]

He died on 20 November 2005, aged 84, at the Johnson Center at Falcons Landing in Cascades, Potomac Falls. He was buried on 23 January 2006 at Arlington National Cemetery.[6] Thomas and his wife of 55 years, Patricia Ann Fullerton Lawler, of Sterling had three sons, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.[7]

Thomas Comerford Lawler married Patricia Ann Fullerton (1927-2015), a journalist with the Cumberland News in Saint Mary’s Church, Cumberland, Maryland, on 24 September 1950. She was a daughter of Max R Fullerton (1905-1967) and Virginia E Fullerton (1906- ) of Baltimore.

They were the parents of three sons:

1, Peter Augustine Lawler, of Rome, Georgia.
2, Thomas Aquin Lawler, of Vienna.
3, Gregory Francis Lawler, of Ithaca, New York.

His next brother:

(The Revd Dr) DAVID A COMERFORD LAWLER (1926-2003) was born on 29 July 1926 in Cumberland, Maryland. As Father Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap, he was a Franciscan Capuchin friar, ordained on 28 August 1951.

A theologian, he was the only American member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. He was educated at SS Peter and Paul School, Saint Fidelis Seminary, and Saint Louis University (PhD, 1958).

He taught at Saint Fidelis College, Herman, Pennsylvania, Josephinum College, Worthington, Ohio, the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, Saint Thomas University, Houston, Texas, Saint John University, New York, and the Holy Apostles’ College and Seminary, Cromwell, Connecticut.

In 1977, he was the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, formed as a conservative counterpoint to the Catholic Theological Society of America. He was made a member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy in 1982 alongside Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Father Hans Urs von Balthazar.

He wrote on bioethics, defending church teaching on matters ranging from embryonic stem cell research to end-of-life issues. He was co-editor of the adult catechism The Teaching of Christ (1976), with his brother, Thomas Comerford Lawler, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh.

He died on 5 November 2003 in Pittsburgh, aged 77. He was buried in Saint Augustine Cemetery, Shaler, Pennsylvania.[8]

Sources and references:

[1] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8.11.2003; Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[2] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[3] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[4] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[5] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[6] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[7] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[8] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8.11.2003.

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