02 July 2024

Comerford profiles:
Father John Jay Comerford,
Carmelite priest and
civil rights advocate

Father John Jay Comerford is a Carmelite friar, priest and theologian who has spent almost 50 years in the priesthood

Patrick Comerford

Three members of the Comerford family in the US are in active priestly ministry in the Roman Catholic Church: Father Christopher J Comerford, in Granite City, Illinois; Father John J Comerford, living in the Carmelite Priory in Darien, Illinois, and Father Patrick Comerford, a hospital chaplain in Santa Monica, California.

Father John Jay Comerford, who now lives at the Blessed Titus Brandsma Priory in Darien, Illinois, is a Carmelite friar, priest and theologian who has spent almost 50 years in the priesthood, with a ministry that has mainly involved teaching and directing retreats.

His ministry has included 33 spent teaching at Carmelite High Schools across the US, including Tucson, Arizona, Fairbanks, Alaska and near Los Angeles. He has also been a retreat director and is a civil rights advocate.

John Jay Comerford is descended from the Co Wexford branch of the Comerford family, the Comerford family of Minooka, Illinois, and so is a distant (perhaps, even, a very distant) cousin. His ancestors emigrated from Co Wexford to America and arrived in Illinois ca 1850. They were founders of Minooka, Illinois, and bought the family farm in the Aux Sable Township, which later became part of Minooka, about 50 miles outside Chicago. They also ran the general store, the Post Office, and train station.

William Comerford (1799-1866) was born in Co Wexford and there he married Honora (Nancy) Nolan (802-1854). William and Nancy Comerford emigrated to the US with their Wexford-born son, George Comerford (1826-1891) in 1847, first settling in Rochester County, New York. In 1849, they moved with their entire family to Illinois in 1849 and bought land in the Aux Sable district of Illinois, where William farmed 560 acres in Grundy County.

Their son George Comerford (1826-1891), who was born in Co Wexford, first planned to study for the priesthood, but instead became a railroad pioneer in Illinois. He is credited with bringing the railroad to Minooka, which came into existence in 1852 when the railroad came through the area. George surveyed the Rockford and Rock Island Railroad, and settled in Minooka, Illinois, where he was the rail agent, the postmaster and a merchant. He was instrumental in establishing the Minooka post office in 1853, and served as its postmaster for nine years. The village of Minooka was incorporated in 1869.

George Comerford was also involved in building the Chicago, Rock Island and Peoria Line and became the first agent at the Minooka Depot. He built the Comerford Block in Minooka, helped build both the Catholic and Methodist churches, farmed 160 acres. He was a Democrat in his politics, and was President of the Board of Education.

George Comerford returned to visit his native Co Wexford around 1882, and died on 3 December 1891. He was the grandfather of Joseph T Comerford (1901-1979), who married Elizabeth Donahue (1904-1968), and they were the parents of two sons:

1, Joseph Thomas Comerford (1943-2021).

2, (The Revd) John Jay Comerford, OCarm.

Joseph Thomas (Joe) Comerford (1943-2021) … a lifelong pharmacist in Nebraska and Illinois

The elder son, Joseph Thomas (Joe) Comerford, was born on 22 August 1943 in Joliet, Illinois. Joe attended Saint Patrick's School and Joliet Catholic High School (1961), and studied pharmacy at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska (BS Pharmacy, 1966). He was a lifelong pharmacist working in Nebraska and Illinois.

He first married Sandra Clark, they returned to live to Illinois and were the parents of two sons, John and Thomas Comerford. He later moved to Humboldt, Nebraska, where he owned and run a pharmacy shop. He was a member of the local volunteer fire department, and was elected local chapter president of the Junior Chamber.

He sold his shop in 1978 and returned to Illinois. He later married his second wife Joyce Dixon-McCauley, mother of Ronda and Randall McCauley, and moved to Clarendon Hills. After Joyce died, he returned to Nebraska to be nearer to his family and lived there until he died in Omaha, Nebraska, at the age of 78 on 23 December 2021. He was buried at the Comerford plot in Saint Mary Cemetery, Minooka.

His brother Father John Jay Comerford is a Carmelite friar and priest Brandsma Priory, Darien, Illinois. He was born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1948. He has been a Carmelite for 58 years, a priest for 47 years, and has been a high school teacher for 33 years, teaching at Carmelite high schools across the US including Tucson, Arizona, Fairbanks, Alaska and near Los Angeles. He has also been associate pastor in a Mexican-American parish.

His ministry has included serving on high school retreats and six years as the chaplain of a retirement home. He is known for his advocacy of civil rights and human rights and for his interest in Broadway musicals, drama, film and history.

Father John attended Saint Patrick School (1954-1962), where he appeared in several schools plays and sang in the school choir, and Joliet Catholic High School (1962-1966), when he took part in the Selma Sympathy March on 25 March 1965 in downtown Joliet. At school, he was the executive editor of The Hilltopper yearbook, photo and copy editor of The Victory Light school newspaper, and acted in school plays.

He then studied at Mount Carmel College, Niagara Falls, Ontario (1966-1967). The centre is close to Horseshoe Falls, and the Carmelites have been there since 1875. ‘We have a winery at our monastery at Niagara Falls. We are the only the monastery in Canada with a winery,’ he says. There he professed his first vows as a Carmelite on 22 August 1968.

He then studied at Marquette University (1968-1971, BA, Speech Education and Drama, 1971). As a student, he was involved in the Marquette Players and designed and acted in theatre productions.

He taught English at Salpointe Catholic High school in Tucson, Arizona (1971-1972) and religion and English at Monroe Catholic High School, Fairbanks, Alaska (1972-1974).

He then studied theology at Washington Theological Union (1973-1977), with a concentration in church history, scripture and liturgy, and he was ordained priest at Whitefriars Hall, Washington DC, in 1977.

He taught at his old school, Joliet Catholic, from 1978 to 1988, and taught there again from 2003-2006.

During a sabbatical study year, he studied theology at the North American College, Rome, in 2006. When Pope Benedict celebrated his 79th birthday that year, Father John Jay Comerford was in Rome to wish him a happy birthday. He was among the 100 priests and deacons helping to administer Holy Communion during the Easter Mass.

After returning from Rome, he spent six years, he was the chaplain at the Carmelite Carefree Village (2006-2012). He was the Retreat Director at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre at Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 2012, and says it has ‘always been my favourite place on earth since I was 18 years old.’

Father John Jay Comerford returned to his hometown roots in Joliet in 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary of his ordination as priest, and celebrated Mass at his childhood neighbourhood parish, Saint Patrick’s Church.

Father Comerford has been described as ‘a living encyclopaedia’ on Joliet’s history and is fascinated by old prisons. The Joliet Prison has been featured in television shows and movies, including Prison Break and The Blues Brothers (1980), which starred John Belushi as ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues and Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues. He was delighted to hear how the old Joliet Prison is being turned into a tourism destination and how Joliet is promoting ‘Joliet Jake’ and the ‘Blue Brothers’ nostalgia.

A year later, when he celebrated his 70th birthday, he said: ‘I have no intention of retiring yet.’ Since 2018, he has lived at the Blessed Titus Brandsma Priory in Darien, Illinois.

The Comerford Farm in Minooka, Illinois, ca 1888 (Photograph courtesy John L Baskerville)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
54, Tuesday 2 July 2024

The icon of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). Later today I have a hospital appointment in Milton Keynes for a pulmonary test regarding my sarcoidosis. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Incredulity of Saint Thomas is eighth from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 8: 23-27 (NRSVUE):

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm suddenly arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

A detail in the icon of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 17: the Assurance of Thomas (Η ψηλάφηση του Θωμά):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The eighth in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, or Η ψηλάφηση του Θωμά (I Psilafisi tou Thoma), ‘the Assurance of Thomas.’

The Calendar of the Church of England commemorates Saint Thomas tomorrow (3 July), while the Orthodox Church remembers the doubting of the Apostle Thomas on the first Sunday after Easter; this year Thomas Sunday was on Sunday 12 May 2024.

In the Gospels, Saint Thomas is named ‘Thomas, also called the Twin (Didymus).’ But the name ‘Thomas’ comes from the Aramaic word for twin, T'oma (תאומא), so there is a tautological wordplay going on here.

Syrian tradition says the apostle’s full name was Judas Thomas, or Jude Thomas. But, who was his twin brother – or sister?

I have often visited Didyma on the south coast of Anatolia. There, the Didymaion was one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Apollo was the sun-god, the son of Zeus; he was the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth, and in Greek and Roman mythology he died and rose again.

Is the story of Saint Thomas’s doubts an invitation to the followers of the cult of Apollo to turn to Christ, the true Son of God the Father, who is the Good Shepherd, who is the way, the truth and the light, who has died and who is truly risen?

We can never be quite sure about Saint Thomas in Saint John’s Gospel. After the death of Lazarus, the disciples resist Christ’s decision to return to Judea, where there had been an attempt to stone Jesus. But Thomas shows he has no idea of the real meaning of death and resurrection when he suggests that the disciples should go to Bethany with Jesus: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ (John 11: 16).

And, while Thomas saw the raising of Lazarus, what did he believe in?

Could seeing ever be enough for a doubting Thomas to believe?

The Apostle Thomas also speaks at the Last Supper (John 14: 5). When Christ assures the disciples that they know where he is going, Thomas protests that they do not know at all. He has been with Christ for three years, and still he does not believe or understand. Seeing and explanations are not enough for him. Christ replies to his remarks and to Philip’s requests with a detailed exposition of his relationship to God the Father.

In the Resurrection story in Saint John’s Gospel, Saint Mary Magdalene – who is commemorated later this month on 22 July – does not recognise the Risen Christ at first. For her, appearances could be deceiving, and she thinks he is the gardener. But when he speaks to her, she recognises his voice, and then wants to hold on to him. From that moment of seeing and believing, she rushes off to tell the Disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord.’

Two of the disciples, John the Beloved and Simon Peter, have already seen the empty tomb, but they fail to make the vital connection between seeing and believing. When they hear Mary’s testimony, they still fail to believe fully. They only believe when they see the Risen Lord standing among them, when he greets them, ‘Peace be with you,’ and when he shows them his pierced hands and side.

They had to see and to hear, they had to have the Master stand over them in their presence, before they could believe.

On the first Easter Day, the Disciples locked themselves away out of fear. But where is Thomas? Is he fearless? Or is he foolish?

For a full week, Thomas is absent and does not join in the Easter experience of the remaining disciples. He has not seen and so he refuses to believe. When they tell him what has happened, Thomas refuses to accept their stories of the Resurrection. For him hearing, even seeing, are not enough.

Thomas wants to see, hear and touch. He wants to use all his learning faculties before he can believe this story. He has heard, but he wants to see. When he sees, he wants to touch … he demands not only to touch the Risen Christ, but to touch his wounds too before being convinced.

And so, for a second time within eight days, Christ comes and stands among his disciples, and says: ‘Peace be with you.’

This icon depicts that event recalled in John 20: 19-31. The icon emphasises the closed door, a significant part of the narrative: ‘the doors were locked’ (verse 19). After Christ’s arrest, the disciples tried to hide from the authorities out of fear. They returned to the last place where they had seen him alive, the upper room, around the same table where they had shared that last meal.

The young Thomas was not present the first time round and had said to the others: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’ (John 20: 25).

Christ appears within the disciples’ hiding place, where the door is firmly shut. His presence is real, and he invites Thomas: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’ (John 20: 27).

In this icon, Christ’s right arm is raised not so much in blessing but revealing his right side with its open wound. Saint Thomas is raising his right hand, about to touch the wounded side, but not actually placing his finger in the open wound.

The wounds from the nails on the Cross can also be seen in Christ’s hand and feet. The icon in Stony Stratford follows traditional Byzantine iconography and style. Christ stands in front of the closed door of a large domed building, with his right arm raised; we can see the signs of the nails on his hands. In many icons, Christ holds a scroll in his left hand.

The Apostles, divided in two groups, watch Thomas touch Christ’s side.

The familiar term ‘doubting Thomas’, referring to the Apostle, is used to describe someone who unreasonably doubts someone’s word. There is no inscription on this icon in Stony Stratford. However, where Orthodox icons depicting this scene have inscriptions, this is not how they refer to Saint Thomas. Instead, the usual Greek inscription reads Η ψηλάφηση του Θωμά (I Psilafisi tou Thoma), ‘the Assurance of Thomas.’ Often English icons are inscribed ‘The Belief of Thomas.’

The icon shows not a ‘Doubting Thomas,’ but a reassured Thomas. This is the Thomas who bends before the Risen Christ to touch his wounds and exclaims: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20: 28).

The Church Fathers recognised that although Saint Thomas doubted, his doubt was not unreasonable. Christ responded, spurring Saint Thomas to a confession of Christ’s Divinity that is more explicit than anywhere else in the Gospels.

Looking out from the scene, Christ’s response to Thomas is also for us: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (John 20: 29).

Mary was asked in the garden on Easter morning not to cling on to Christ. But Thomas is invited to touch him in the most intimate way. He is told to place his finger in Christ’s wounded hands and his hand in Christ’s pierced side.

Yet we are never told whether Thomas actually touched those wounds with his fingers. All we are told is that once he has seen the Risen Christ, Thomas simply professes his faith in Christ: ‘My Lord and my God!’

In that moment, we hear the first expression of faith in the two natures of Christ, that he is both divine and human. For all his doubts, Saint Thomas provides us with an exquisite summary of the apostolic faith.

Too often, perhaps, we talk about ‘Doubting Thomas,’ when we might better call him ‘Believing Thomas.’ His doubting leads him to question. But his questioning leads to listening. And when he hears, he sees, perhaps he even touches. Whatever he does, he learns in his own way, and he comes not only to faith but to faith that for this first time is expressed in that eloquent yet succinct acknowledgment of Christ as both ‘My Lord and My God.’

In our society today, are we easily deceived by appearances?

Do we confuse what pleases me with beauty and with truth?

Do we allow those who have power to define the boundaries of trust and integrity merely to serve their own interests?

Too often, in this world, we are deceived easily by the words of others and deceived by what they want us to see. Seeing is not always believing today. Hearing does not always mean we have heard the truth, as we know in Irish life and politics today. It is easy to deceive and to be deceived by a good presentation and by clever words.

Too often, we accept or judge people by their appearances, and we are easily deceived by the words of others because of their office or their privilege. But there are times when our faith, however simple or sophisticated, must lead us to ask appropriate questions, not to take everything for granted, and not to confuse what looks like being in our own interests with real beauty and truth.

A detail in the icon of the Incredulity of Saint Thomas in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 2 July 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Tuesday 2 July 2024) invites us to pray:

Heavenly Father, we pray for the healthcare providers at Saint Luke’s Hospital and other healthcare facilities. Bless them with wisdom and discernment as they attend to the needs of the sick and suffering. May they embody your love and compassion in their every action.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you,
that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered
by your governance,
that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Saint Thomas:

Almighty and eternal God,
who, for the firmer foundation of our faith,
allowed your holy apostle Thomas
to doubt the resurrection of your Son
till word and sight convinced him:
grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe
and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Thomas and the Risen Christ depicted in a fresco in a church in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Saint Thomas and the Risen Christ in a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)