Bishop John W. Comber, MM

Born: March 12, 1906
Ordained: February 7, 1931
Died: March 27, 1998

Bishop John W. Comber, former Superior General of the Maryknoll Society, died on the evening of March 27, 1998 at St. Teresa’s Residence. He was 92 years old, a Maryknoll priest for 67 years and a Bishop for 39 years.

John William Comber was born on March 12, 1906 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, son of Thomas F. and Nora Higgins Comber. Theirs was a happy and devout family of three brothers and five sisters. One sister, Alice, became Notre Dame Sister Francis Helena, S.N.D., who served in Japan. Another sister became Maryknoll Sister Rita Clare, M.M., who served most of her life in China and Taiwan. John attended St. Mary’s Grade School in Lawrence and went on to St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1923. He studied for two years at Boston College and then, on September 9, 1925, he entered Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York. In June 1930 he earned a Bachelor of Sacred Theology at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. He was ordained a priest at Maryknoll Seminary on February 7, 1931 and a Bishop on April 9, 1959.

From his earliest years in grammar school, Bishop Comber had the secret wish to be a missioner, a wish that was fostered by hearing stories of the martyrs in school and by Father (later Bishop) Land, a family friend, who often spoke of Maryknoll and its work. But his family situation kept him from telling them of his intentions to join Maryknoll until he was in college.

After ordination, Father Comber immediately sailed to the Maryknoll Mission in Fushun, Manchuria, where he served for eleven years, except for a Home Leave after ten years when he did Promotion work in the Boston area. He became one of the best in both the spoken and written Mandarin language. His first assignment was Pastor of the mission in Er-Pa-Tan for two years and then as Pastor of the mission in Tung Hua. He also served as Vicar Delegate of the Bishop and Associate Professor in the Fushun Junior Seminary. Father Comber, who gained many converts, was considered an ideal missioner: competent, kind, excellent with the people and very happy in his vocation. In 1939 he became Pastor of the Fushun Center Parish. Through his tactful influence, Fr. Clarence Burns was released by his bandit captors early in 1936, without any harm befalling him.

At the outbreak of World War II on December 7, 1941, all U.S. missionaries in Japanese held countries, including Father Comber and his two sisters, Sr. Rita Clare, M.M., and Sr. Francis Helena, S.N.D., were interned by the Japanese military. Along with other internees, the three were repatriated to the United States in the second exchange of nationals on the Swedish liner M.S. Gripsholm in December 1943. After a short period of recuperation, during which he unsuccessfully sought permission from the General Council to enter the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Armed Forces, Father Comber was assigned to teach Mission Sociology at Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining in January, 1944. He was appointed Rector of the Seminary in May and served in that position for nine years. He was a kind and fair Rector, concerned with the minor as well as the major needs of the seminarians and all the details of the running of the Seminary. As Rector, he formed more future Society members than any other Maryknoller, instilling in them, as best he could, his own real love for Maryknoll. During his tenure, 416 Maryknoll priests were ordained. He also taught Dogmatic Theology and Mission Sociology until 1946. In that year, he was elected by U.S. Group IV as a delegate to the Third General Chapter of the Society. The hundreds of priests he helped train as seminarians remember his commanding presence projected by a shock of premature grey hair, stocky stature, hesitant smile and rather gruff, questioning way that cloaked a basically shy, self-effacing and compassionate nature.

On August 13, 1953, Father Comber was assigned to the Maryknoll Mission in Peru, South America and entered the Maryknoll Language School in Arequipa for studies in Spanish language and culture. After language school, he served in San Juan Parish in Puno. In May 1954, he was appointed Group Superior for the new Maryknoll Mission in Chile where he was well received by the Society members and the people.

In January 1956 Father Comber was chosen as Delegate to the Fourth General Chapter by the South America Group II. During that Chapter, on August 6, 1956, he was elected the Fourth Superior General of the Maryknoll Society, succeeding Bishop Raymond A. Lane, and served in that position for ten eventful years. During his time as Superior General, the Society experienced a period of rapid growth, expanding to its highest point in members and mission commitments. His administration spanned the Pre- and Post-Vatican II periods in the Church, with all the creative tensions involved in that transition. His administration was marked with several innovations in the Society, among which was the beginning of the very successful Maryknoll Associate Priests/Brothers Program.

On January 23, 1959, Pope John XXIII named Father Comber as Titular Bishop of Foratiana. He was ordained Bishop on April 9, 1959, by Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York in Queen of Apostles Chapel at Maryknoll Seminary. Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston preached the sermon at the ordination Mass. Bishop Comber attended all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-1965) and was appointed a member of the Post-Conciliar Commission on Missions. He also served as an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of New York.

In 1966, he was proclaimed Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa by the President and Trustees of Boston College. He was enrolled as Equitem Magnae Crucis (Knight of the Grand Cross) of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. A biographical sketch of his life and the sermon preached at his first Pontifical Mass in St. Mary’s Church, Lawrence, Massachusetts, were inserted into the Congressional Record by Representative Thomas J. Lane, a family friend.

During his term as Superior General, and later in retirement, Bishop Comber was highly esteemed by members of the Hierarchy, especially by Cardinal Spellman and Cardinal Cooke. Throughout his life, he enjoyed great respect from his contemporaries as well as those he formed and brought into the Maryknoll Priesthood and Brotherhood. While anecdotes about him abound, they are all touched with a sense of pride in this Maryknoller who for many was a real model of what a Maryknoller should be.

Having completed his term as Superior General in October 1966, Bishop Comber was appointed Pastor of Transfiguration Parish in Lower Manhattan, New York City, by Cardinal Spellman on May 22, 1967. He retired as Pastor after two years and took up residence at the Maryknoll Development House on East 39th Street. On June 12, 1969, Bishop Comber moved to St. Agnes Rectory in mid-Manhattan, where he assisted in the many liturgical functions of the parish. He enjoyed the community of priests there and the sacramental work he was able to do. In addition, he was able to visit the Maryknollers only a few blocks away almost daily.

Bishop Comber was formally enrolled in the Special Society Unit on July 15, 1979, at age 73, with continued residence at St. Agnes Rectory. Throughout his retirement years, he graciously represented the Society at numerous ecclesiastical functions, especially in the Archdiocese of New York, and continued to assist Cardinal Cooke in administering the Sacrament of Confirmation and other ministries. While at St. Agnes Church, he celebrated both his Golden Jubilee as a priest on February 1, 1981, and then his 25th Anniversary as Bishop on April 9, 1984. Shortly afterward, due to declining physical ability, Bishop Comber moved to St. Teresa’s where he remained until his death.

Wake services were held at 7:00 p.m. on March 31, 1998 at St. Teresa’s Residence Chapel, with Father Henry J. Felsecker giving a talk and at 7:30 p.m. at Queen of Apostles Chapel at Maryknoll Center where Father Gorden N. Fritz officiated and Brother Eugene Casper read the biography. Mass of Christian Burial was concelebrated at Queen of Apostles Chapel on April 1, 1998 at 11:00 a.m. Bishop Patrick J. Sheridan, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New York was Principal Celebrant and Father Thomas H. Keefe, homilist. Burial followed at Maryknoll Center Cemetery with Father Raymond J. Finch conducting the graveside service.