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)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and blessed journey!