Brother Joseph Comber, CFX
I thought a lot about the five values (humility, simplicity, trust, zeal, and compassion) of the Xaverian charism as I wrote these reflections. Humility is certainly one those values Brother Joseph Comber, CFX, most exemplified. Hence, he is on record as not wanting a “eulogy.” However, as a scholar, Joe had an appreciation for the nuance of language. So, Joe, this is not a “eulogy” but only a few “reflections” to ease our sadness.
Brother Joe was born in Lawrence, MA, to Eleanor and Joseph Comber. He was their only child; but two of his cousins, Francis and Frederick English, were also part of the Comber household as Joe grew up. Joe attended St. Augustine Elementary School; and then, like his father, St. John’s Prep where he graduated as valedictorian in 1958. Well-schooled in the Catholic faith and inspired by the Brothers at the Prep, he answered God’s call, joined the Xaverian Brothers and took the religious name Brother Maximus.
Brother Joseph then set out to learn how to be a Brother and how to teach. He did his novitiate under the guidance of Brother Kevin at Old Point Comfort, VA. He went on to scholasticate at Xaverian College and then continued his schooling at Catholic University where he discovered his proclivity for the study of language. After graduating from C.U. with a Bachelor’s degree in Classical Languages, Joe did his first teaching at St. John’s Prep from 1964 to 1967. In those days, St. John’s had a substantial number of boarding students, so, young Brother Maximus had to learn how to balance teaching and community life with dorm prefecting. After this first stint of teaching at St. John’s, Brother Maximus stepped out of his teaching role to pursue graduate studies in Scripture. Over the next eight years, he earned a Master’s degree at St. Louis University and then a PhD in Scripture Studies at the University of Chicago. His concentration was in the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, the subject of his dissertation.
Among the changes that affected religious life after Vatican II, Brothers were given the option of switching from their religious names back to their given names. Henceforth, Brother Maximus was known as Brother Joseph. Another post-Vatican II change was the option for religious to form small communities and live in houses rather than in large communities connected to schools. After Brother Joseph finished his PhD, he joined a small community of Brothers in Melrose on Vinton St. This community included Brothers Tom Puccio, Tim Paul, Dan Cremin, Phil DiMarchi, Timothy Hoey, as well as Brothers Robert Sullivan, Ed Bozzo and Fred Eid. Joe lived in the Melrose community for over 40 years.
After he finished his graduate study, he returned to St. John’s Prep where, for the next 20 years, he taught religious studies and then Latin and German. Joe had a caring, patient, easy-going classroom style; he called students to academic excellence, but he flavored his classes with humor, kindness and compassion. He moderated the German Club and traveled with students to Germany as part of an exchange program run by the Goethe Institute in Boston. He also moderated the Jazz Band and worked with director Billy Novick, a professional jazz musician who was a renowned member of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. In addition to his teaching at the Prep, for several years Brother Joe taught Old Testament to seminarians at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.
In 1994 Joe heard God’s call to begin a new ministry working as a certified nursing assistant at Mary Immaculate Nursing and Restorative Center in Lawrence, MA. Joe’s father had died the year before, so working in Lawrence would enable him to be more present to his mother in her declining years. Eventually Joe’s mother was a resident at Mary Immaculate and died there in 1997. With additional training, Joe became a restorative aide assisting the physical therapists at Mary Immaculate. Joe retired in 2013 because he had been diagnosed with ALS, a terminal, incurable, progressive neurological disease.
Throughout his life, Brother Joe answered God’s call with trust in God’s love. Now after a devastating diagnosis, he faced the challenges ahead with a zeal for life and a determination to “celebrate each day” despite the physical diminishment he faced. He continued to live at the Vinton St. house and doggedly performed his daily exercise regimen geared to slow the progression of his neurological deterioration. After a couple of years Joe could no longer handle the arduous climb to the house at Vinton Street; so, Joe and Brother Timothy Hoey moved into a first-floor apartment about a mile from the house. Over the next couple of years, Brother Joe got a motorized wheelchair and a wheelchair van. He was delighted to have some mobility and to have regular contact with the community at Vinton St. as well as friends and family who came to visit. He also enjoyed getting into the pool at the Malden YMCA and at our apartment complex.
As Joe’s care needs increased, he decided to move into the Leonard Florence Center for Living, a long-term care facility in Chelsea. The Leonard Florence Center for Living is not a traditional nursing home. It is based on a model for long-term care that is designed to provide a home-like atmosphere where residents are divided into “houses” which are small communities. Joe lived in Mcdonald House, a community of men and women who have ALS or MS. At Leonard Florence, Joe found a warm and caring environment for the last three years of his life. The residents and staff at Leonard Florence loved Joe for his gentle manner, his positive attitude, and his sweet smile.
Joe was a man of studied habits, routines, and daily rituals that kept him prayerful, focused, and organized. His life reflected the spiritual values of the Xaverian charism. I mentioned humility earlier as one of Joe’s strong suits. Simplicity would be another aspect of his life. He managed to keep his life clear of clutter and well-regulated, and this freed him to do wonderful things in ministry and as a Brother in community. I am reminded that Joe and I shared kitchen duties, and our routine called for a thorough cleaning of the kitchen on Saturday morning and then a Saturday afternoon trip to the supermarket to buy the groceries needed for the coming week. Joe’s faithfulness to routines was simplicity in action and made sure the important things were done.
Joe had great trust in the love of God; and, even during his illness, he saw each day as a gift to be celebrated. Therefore, he had a zeal for living that throughout his life radiated through his positive attitude, an infectious smile, and a genuine joy. On the door to his room at Leonard Florence, he had a saying from St. Philip Neri—“I will have no sad spirits in my house. Cheerful people are more easily led to perfection.” His trust in God’s love and his zeal for life despite his suffering are truly inspirational.
Even before his illness, Joe delighted in the simple joys of regular exercise—jogging or walking. He also enjoyed going to the beach. Part of his routine was a Sunday beach trip to Rockport or Gloucester with other members of the community. There he would walk the beach, swim laps parallel to the shore and finally body surf if the waves permitted. Then, he would settle down to some beach reading and one of the tuna fish sandwiches he had packed for us.
Joe also very much enjoyed his summer vacation trips with Brother Jerry O’Leary up to the Maritime Provinces where they stayed in bed-and-breakfasts, searched out local beaches, and admired the beauty of the land and the people. After Joe got sick, Brother Jerry was a regular visitor and brought Joe much joy with reminiscences of their Canadian adventures.
Compassion is another spiritual value in the Xaverian charism. This value is the root of Brother Joe’s kindness toward others which endeared him to his students, the residents and staff at Mary Immaculate, and the residents and staff at the Leonard Florence Center for Living. In his last years, he frequently repeated the quote—“Be kind because everyone you meet is hurting.” Here we can see clearly the connection between Joe’s kindness and his compassion for others.
It seems particularly poignant that Brother Joe died during the Easter season. This year he was undergoing his own passion as the Church remembered Jesus’ passion. Ronald Rolheiser points out in his book, The Passion and The Cross that the word “passion” has two meanings. When we speak of Jesus’ passion, of course, it denotes his suffering, but it also points to Jesus’ passivity in His acceptance of and obedience to his Father’s will. Despite the anguish, agony, and loneliness Jesus felt on the road to Calvary, His Resurrection transformed the cross into a sign of God’s eternal love. Joe’s faith and trust in God’s love despite the suffering and difficulties he faced during his illness can inspire us as we carry our own crosses. We thank God for Joe’s brotherhood, fellowship, and faithfulness in his time with us, and we trust that he is smiling on us now, at peace knowing God’s loving embrace and life everlasting. Amen? Amen.
Prepared by Brothers Thomas Puccio and Timothy Hoey
Delivered by Brother Timothy Hoey at St. John’s Prep Chapel, May 1, 2021
Click here to read an In Memoriam prepared by St. John’s Prep.