Wednesday, 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)

‘You will see heaven opened
and the angels of God
ascending and descending’

Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil, the 1958 bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels,

Wednesday 29 September 2021

11 am.: Festal Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

The Readings: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.

Saint Finian’s Bay, near Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, with Skellig Michael in the distance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Saint Michael is closely associated with churches in these dioceses, including churches in Pery Square, Limerick, Killorglin and Waterville in Co Kerry, and, of course, the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks, one of the most popular tourist sites in this part of Ireland.

Culturally, the feast day of Saint Michael and All Angels has been an important day for the Church: the beginning of terms, the end of the harvest season, the settling of accounts.

It is the beginning of autumn, and as children in West Waterford we were told that Michaelmas Day is the last day for picking blackberries. As I grew up, I realised that this is a superstition shared across the islands, from Achill to Lichfield, from Wexford to Essex and Cambridge.

In his poem ‘Trebetherick,’ John Betjeman seems to link ripening blackberries and the closing in of the autumn days with old age and the approach of death:

Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light,
Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat

But the former poet laureate had a more benign view of blackberries on a visit to the Isle of Man, when he described ‘wandering down your late-September lanes when dew-hung cobwebs glisten in the gorse and blackberries shine, waiting to be picked.’

In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep,’ first drafted on this day 75 years ago (29 September 1946), the poet Philip Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

This is a day to allow the mind to wander back to childhood memories, and a time for contemplation and unstructured prayers, giving thanks for the beauty of creation.

September is also the beginning of the Church Year in the Orthodox tradition, so this too is a day to think about and to give thanks for beginnings and ends, for starting and ending, for openings and closings, for memories and even for forgetfulness.

In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Michael commands the army of angels loyal to God against the rebel forces of Satan. One of the best-known sculptures by Sir Jacob Epstein is Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil at Coventry Cathedral.

Yet Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and in the Book of Revelation (Daniel 10: 13, 21, 12: 1; Jude 9; Revelation 12: 7-9; see also Revelation 20: 1-3).

In Jewish tradition, Rabbinic lore and the Midrash made Michael the special patron of Adam, the rescuer of Abraham, Lot and Jacob, the teacher of Moses; Michael tried to prevent Israel from being led into captivity, to save the Temple from destruction, and to protect Esther, whose story we heard about on Sunday (26 September 2021).

In the early Church, Michael was associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician. Saint Basil the Great and other Greek fathers placed Michael over all the angels and so called him ‘archangel.’ The Orthodox Church gave him the title of ‘Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts’ (ἀρχιστράτηγος, archistrategos).

In all our imagery, in all our poetry, Saint Michael is seen as crushing or slaying Satan, often Satan as a dragon.

Our ideas of dragons are also culturally conditioned. For the Chinese, dragons symbolise gift and blessing, and represent the majesty of the imperial household.

In most European languages, the word for a dragon is derived from the same Greek word used for a serpent. In European folklore and mythology, legendary dragons have symbolised danger and evil. We are warned in the Greek classics against sowing dragon’s teeth.

Most of us know that throughout life we are going to meet our own dragons, and how they are going to ensnare us if we do not face them and slay them.

During the Blitz in World War II, the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) spent some of his late teen and early adult years with his father’s family, close to Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield, where generations of the Larkin family are buried. There, on the north wall of the church, in a large, looming sculpted image, Saint Michael is crushing the dragon under his feet.

Memories of this image and this churchyard may have inspired the imagery in at least two poems written by Larkin some years later. In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep’, first drafted on this day 75 years ago [29 September 1946], Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

In his poem ‘To Failure,’ written a year before he moved to Belfast, Larkin realises that failure does not come ‘dramatically, with dragons / that rear up with my life between their paws.’ Failure comes with more subtlety in those wasted opportunities and lost chances.

Throughout life, we find we have your own dragons to slay. We must learn to know our dragons. And we need to pay heed to the opportunities in life that pass far too quickly, to take the opportunities we are presented with, like Nathanael in our Gospel reading, waiting beneath the fig tree, preparing for the next stage in life, the call to follow Christ.

There may be few dramatic conflicts with our inner dragons in daily life. But in time, we may regret not paying attention to the little opportunities, the minor details of life. Then we do not notice the changes, the days passing more quickly, and the years passing by.

Philip Larkin writes:

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Install you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. (You have been here some time.)

Sitting under his tree, Nathanael was aware of the opportunities and did not allow them to pass him by. And when we seize these opportunities, we may find ourselves prepared to ‘see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1: 51).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

‘There was a ladder … reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it’ (Genesis 28: 12) … ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ (John 1: 51) … ascending and descending angels on a frosted-glass door in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: White

Penitential Kyries:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Woe is me, for I am lost;
I am a person of unclean lips.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your guilt is taken away,
And your sin is forgiven.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Hear again the song of angels:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. (Luke 2: 14)

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this Eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The God of all creation
guard you by his angels,
and grant you the citizenship of heaven:

Saint Michael slaying the Dragon, an image at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield … may have inspired at least one poem by Philip Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


346, Angel voices, ever singing (CD 21)
332, Come let us join our cheerful song (CD 20)

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.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
123, Saint Nicholas Church, Rethymnon

The Church of Saint Nicholas, near the bus station in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels (29 September 2021). Later this morning, I hope to celebrate the Festal Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is churches in Rethymnon on the island of Crete, where I spent two weeks earlier this month.

My photographs this morning (29 September 2021) are from the Church of Saint Nicholas, close to the bus station in Rethymnon.

Inside the Church of Saint Nicholas, near the bus station in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Church of Saint Nicholas is in a small square formed at the corner of Priskosoridi street and Emmanouil Kefalogianni avenue, the street that runs around the shore of the rocky bay beneath the western slopes of the Venetian Fortezza.

This small chapel or church, close to the bus station, is surrounded by good fish restaurants and tavernas. This is now a suburban part of western Rethymnon, and is slowly becoming a part of the tourist area. But, only a few decades ago and within living memory, this was an area closely associated with fishers and their fishing boats.

Saint Nicholas, as well as being the patron saint of children and the inspiration for Santa Claus, is also the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing, which explains the presence of this modern church dedicated to his name in this part of Rethymnon.

The feast day of Saint Nicholas falls on 6 December, and almost every town in Greece has a church dedicated to him. Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya on the south coast of present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, so you can see his links with our Santa Claus today.

There are stories too of Saint Nicholas and the defence of true doctrine. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops, to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity.

It was one of the most intense theological debates in the early Church. Arius from Alexandria was teaching that Christ was the Son of God but was not equal to God the Father, not God incarnate. As Arius argued at length, Nicholas became agitated, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face.

The shocked bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal robes, chained him and jailed him. In the morning, the bishops found his chains on the floor and Nicholas dressed in his episcopal robes, quietly reading his Bible. Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

As the debate went on, the Council of Nicaea agreed with his views, deciding against Arius and agreeing on the Nicene Creed, which remains the symbol of our faith. Which probably also makes it appropriate that this church is close to the Church of Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, which I described yesterday.

The unusual iconostasis or icon screen in the Church of Saint Nicholas continues into the pillars of the dome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Inside the Church of Saint Nicholas, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (29 September 2021, Saint Michael and All Angels) invites us to pray:

Let us celebrate the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. May we strive to do what is good and resist earthly temptation.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An icon of Saint Nicholas in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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.

The Church of Saint Nicholas is in an area once closely associated with fishers and their fishing boats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)