04 February 2023

Pierce Comerford: the Irish
missionary who sent bones
of a Dodo back to Dublin

Monsignor Pierce Michael Comerford (1818-1905) … while he was living in Mauritius, he donated parts of a Dodo to the RDS Museum in Dublin

There are reports this week that the dodo, a Mauritian bird last seen in the 17th century, could be brought back to at least a semblance of life if attempts by a gene editing company are successful. The Guradian reports that gene editing techniques now exist that allow scientists to mine the dodo genome for key traits that they believe they can then effectively reassemble within the body of a living relative.

The Dodo was a non-flying bird that lived on the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It became extinct in the mid-17th century during the colonisation of the island by the Dutch.

There are hundreds of Dodos or parts of Dodos in collections around the world, making it possible to sequence the dead bird’s genome. Some of those collections include D0do bones in the Natural History Museum in Dublin, known to generations of Dublin children as the ‘Dead Zoo Museum.’

They ended up in Dublin thanks to donations from Monsignor Pierce Comerford from Kilkenny in 1865, the same year as the first major find of Dodo bones in Mauritius and the same year the Dodo entered popular culture with the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

Pierce Comerford’s Dodo fragments, labelled with his name in the Natural History Museum in Dublin

The Revd Dr Pierce Michael Comerford (1818-1905) worked in Mauritius for 30 years before joining his sisters in California. Some Dodo bones he sent back to Dublin from Mauritius in 1865 became part of the collection in the Royal Dublin Society Museum and are now in the Natural History Museum – the ‘Dead Zoo’ – on Merrion Square in Dublin.

Monsignor Pierce Michael Comerford was a son of Nicholas Comerford (1780-ca 1870), of Coolgreany House near Castlewarren, Co Kilkenny, and his wife Margaret Hanrahan, of Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, who were married in 1817. There is some confusion, but it seems the Coolgreany branch of the family was descended from the Comerfords of Ballybur and the Butterslip, and closely related to the Comerfords of Bunclody, Co Wexford.

Nicholas Comerford’s children included the missionary priest Monsignor Pierce Comerford (1818-1905), and two sisters who were two missionary nuns: Bridget (Mother Mary Teresa) Comerford (1821-1881) and Kate (Mother Mary Bernard) Comerford (1830-1911).

Pierce Michael Comerford was born Peter Michael Comerford in Coolgreany in October 1818, and he studied at Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.

Pierce was in his 20s when he went to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There he was ordained priest in 1845 by Bishop William Bernard Allen Collier, Bishop of Mauritius and Titular Bishop of Milevum. He would spend over 30 years working a missionary, mostly in Mauritius, with his cousin, Father Cornelius Hogan.

Pierce Comerford almost became a missionary bishop. He was nominated as the Auxiliary Bishop of Port Louis, Mauritius, and Titular Bishop of Megara on 7 January 1862. But he was never consecrated bishop, apparently for reasons of ill-health, although he continued to work as Vicar General of Mauritius. At the same time, another Irish-born missionary, Vincent William Ryan (1816-1888), who was born in Cork, was the first Anglican Bishop of Mauritius from 1854 to 1869.

Both Monsignor Comerford and Bishop Ryan were interested in the search for the Dodo on Mauritius. Until 1860, the only known Dodo remains were the four incomplete 17th-century specimens. Philip Burnard Ayres found the first subfossil bones in 1860, which were sent to Richard Owen at the British Museum, who did not publish the findings. In 1863, Owen asked Bishop Vincent Ryan to spread word that he should be informed if any dodo bones were found.

After a 30-year search, George Clark, the government schoolmaster at Mahébourg, finally found an abundance of subfossil dodo bones in 1865 in the swamp in Mare aux Songes in Southern Mauritius.

That same year, Dr Comerford gifted three leg bones and a small portion of the Lower Mandible of the Dodo (Didus ineptus), from Mahébourg, Mauritius, to the Royal Dublin Society Museum in Dublin on 17 November 1865.

John Tenniel’s illustration of the Dodo in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’

That year, the Dodo entered popular culture as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The Dodo is a caricature of the author. A popular but unsubstantiated belief is that Dodgson chose the particular animal to represent himself because of his stammer, and thus would accidentally introduce himself as ‘Do-do-dodgson’.

Dr Comerford’s donation is labelled as from ‘Mahbourd’, Mauritius, although the locality ‘Mahbourd’ is not given in the RDS register entry. His Dodo bones are now part of the collection of the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

Dr Comerford remained Vicar-General of Mauritius until 1876, when he returned home to Ireland to retire, to rest and to restore his health. However, his sister, Mother Mary Teresa Comerford, soon called him out of retirement, inviting him to leave Ireland for California and to be the pastor for a newly-established church linked with her school in Berkeley. She persuaded him to move to Berkeley in late 1878, arguing that ‘the wonderful climate of Berkeley would be more beneficial to his health than the cold of Ireland.’

Until his arrival, there had only been an itinerant priest serving the predominantly Irish Roman Catholics in Berkeley. Using his own money, Dr Comerford built himself a rectory facing Addison Street on lands donated by James McGee. A school for boys, Saint Peter’s, was built 100 ft south of the convent, facing Jefferson Avenue. With a school and chaplain in place, Archbishop Joseph Alemany of San Francisco created Saint Joseph’s Parish on 29 April 1879.

When Mother Mary Teresa returned to Ireland in 1879 to establish a novitiate for the California foundation in Kilcock, Co Kildare, her brother remained in Berkeley. When Dr Comerford was given permission to build a new school for boys, again James McGee donated the land for the school, and Saint Peter’s Boys’ School, financed by Dr Comerford, opened on 1 January 1881. There is a tradition that Dr Comerford sold his horse in order to furnish the school.

His sister returned to California in May 1881, but she died that August. Soon after, Dr Comerford next decided to build a church for the Catholics of Berkeley. Bryan Clinch, who had designed several small wooden Gothic churches in Northern California, was chosen as the architect. The site for the church was partially on land that McGee had given to Mother Teresa and partly on land that he gave to the church.

Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church was begun in 1883 but, due to lack of funds, was not completed until 1886. The church was paid for by a series of annual fairs that attracted the interest of people as far away as San Francisco.

Monsignor Comerford retired from Saint Joseph’s in 1899, but he remained active as a chaplain at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose. He died there on 19 December 1905, having been a priest for almost 61 years. He was buried in Santa Clara Mission Cemetery in Santa Clara. It was said: ‘Though ascetic in frame, Dr Comerford remained erect and vivacious to the end.’

The church he had built was torn down in 1913 to make room for a new wing of the convent, which stood until 1966.

His sister, Mother Mary Teresa Comerford (1821-1881), was a member of the pioneer group of Presentation Sisters sent from Ireland to begin missionary work in San Francisco in 19th century, was born Bridget Comerford in 1821. Their younger sister, Mother Mary Bernard Comerford (1830-1911), was born Catherine Comerford in Co Kilkenny in 1830. She too joined the Presentation Sisters, and travelled to San Francisco to join her sister in 1861. She remained in Berkeley until her death in 1911.

Mother Mary Teresa Comerford … persuaded her brother to move from Ireland to California

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 4 February 2023

Rosa Parks Day is commemorated in man place on her birthday, 4 February

Patrick Comerford

The Feast of the Presentation yesterday (2 February) concluded the 40-day season of Christmas and Epiphany.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Rosa Parks Day is honoured as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of the freedom movement’

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913-2005) was a civil rights activist best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The US Congress has honoured her as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of the freedom movement’.

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on 4 February 1913. Her mother Leona (née Edwards) was a teacher, her father James McCauley was a carpenter. Her great-grandfather, James Percival, is believed to have been born in Glasgow to Irish immigrant parents ca 1830-1833.

Rosa Parks grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded by free Blacks in Philadelphia in the early 19th century.

Emmett Till, a Black teenager, was brutally murdered in August 1955. On 27 November 1955, four days before she refused to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery to discuss the murders of Emmett Till and two activists George W Lee and Lamar Smith. The meeting heard that the two men accused of murdering Till had been acquitted and walked free.

On 1 December 1955, Parks refused to obey an order from a bus driver James F Blake in Montgomery, Alabama, to leave a row of four seats in the ‘coloured’ section in favour of a white passenger because the ‘white’ section was filled. She was arrested for civil disobedience and violating Alabama segregation laws.

Her case dragged through the courts for months, and inspired the Black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. Plans for the bus boycott were announced at Black churches in the area on Sunday 4 December 1955, and a church rally that night agreed unanimously to continue the bus boycott. A new group was formed and was named the Montgomery Improvement Association at the suggestion of the Revd Ralph Abernathy. The Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a newcomer to Montgomery and minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was elected president.

Rosa Parks’s case finally resulted in a ruling in November 1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Her act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation, and organised and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Although widely honoured in later years, Rosa Parks also suffered for her action. She was fired from her job, received death threats for years afterwards, and suffered financial strain, so that she was forced to accept assistance from church groups and admirers. Her rent was paid by Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit.

Rosa Parks died on in Detroit on 24 October 2005 at the age of 92. Her coffin was flown to Montgomery and taken in a horse-drawn hearse to Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, where she lay in repose at the altar, dressed in the uniform of a church deaconess. After a memorial service, her coffin was brought to Washington DC to lie in honour in the rotunda of the US Capitol. A memorial service was held at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC on 31 October 2005.

Her funeral service took place in the Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit on 2 November 2005. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit , where the chapel has been renamed the Rosa L Parks Freedom Chapel in her honour.

California and Missouri commemorate Rosa Parks Day on her birthday today, 4 February, in Michigan on the first Monday after her birthday, and in Alabama, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas on the anniversary of her arrest, 1 December.

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them’ (Mark 6: 34) … a moored boat in the harbour in Georgioupouli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 6: 30-34 (NSRVA):

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Opening Our Hearts.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by James Roberts, Christian Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews, who reflected on Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday last week (27 January) and World Interfaith Harmony Week, which began on Wednesday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us give thanks for the work of the Council of Christians and Jews. May we work for reconciliation in our own lives and strive towards a more peaceable world.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org