Searching the Stars: Reverend Joel H. Metcalf

By William F. Hanna

“It looked like a cotton ball with a real bright condensed center,” reported Howard J. Brewington, of Cloudcroft, New Mexico. An electronics technician and amateur astronomer, Mr. Brewington was talking about a comet that he had spotted streaking across the night sky on January 7, 1991. Already having discovered a previously unknown comet in 1989, he was hoping to immortalize himself by finding another. “Less than 20 people in the history of North America have discovered more than one comet,” he said, “so that puts me in a pretty elite group.”

Indeed it did, and it’s unlikely that Mr. Brewington’s happiness was in any way diminished when he was later told that he had more accurately “rediscovered” a comet that had first been sighted in 1906 by Rev. Joel Hastings Metcalf, a clergyman then residing in Taunton, Massachusetts. Metcalf, another amateur stargazer, was credited with discovering or co-discovering five comets in his relatively brief life, so he was a fellow member of the astronomical elite.

Rev. Joel H. Metcalf (1866–1925)

Born in 1866 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Joel Metcalf’s life was changed when, at age 14, he borrowed Richard Proctor’s Other Worlds Than Ours from his Sunday school library. Shortly after the boy finished the book, the heavens treated him to a rare conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, which he could view from his back yard. By then a committed stargazer, he traded all of his marbles and a jackknife for an old telescope lens that a friend had recovered from an abandoned house. He saved every penny of the $6 it cost to mount the lens, and he was on his way to a lifetime avocation.

Metcalf graduated from the Meadville Theological Seminary in 1890, continued his studies at the Harvard Divinity School and received his doctorate from Allegheny College in 1892. A year earlier he had married Elizabeth Lockman, of Cambridge, Massachusetts and by the time the newly-minted Unitarian clergyman accepted his first job the couple was expecting their first child.

Rev. Metcalf began his ministry in Burlington, Vermont, where he served from 1893 to 1903, with a year’s hiatus in between for study at Oxford University. His time in England proved so taxing that upon his return, he took a year off to regain his health and enthusiasm. The Metcalfs had decided, after 10 years in Burlington, to move their young family — another child, a daughter, had been born in 1897 — to Massachusetts.

That brought the reverend and his family to Taunton, where he accepted the call of the First Parish Church. Arriving in 1904, the Metcalfs moved into the church parsonage, still standing at 54 Summer Street in Taunton. The new minister filled the house, today a private residence, not only with his books and sermons but also with his love of astronomy, which had grown during his years on the shores of Lake Champlain. In Vermont, he had also become an accomplished angler and never missed an opportunity to go fishing in his free time. His daughter Rachael, writing in 1939, remembered that “on dark cloudless nights, he fished for comets. . . . Once in a while we would be instantly roused by father’s thunderous whisper to mother, ‘Elizabeth, I think I’ve got one.’ Daytimes ‘one’ would indicate a bass or pickerel, but nights it meant a comet.”

It was from that Taunton house in 1906 that Rev. Metcalf, using a self-made 12-inch doublet telescope, discovered his first comet, the one that was not to be seen again until 1991. Not only was he an avid stargazer, but he was also an accomplished amateur telescope maker. One of his instruments is still in use at the Boyden Observatory in South Africa, while two others are kept at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Former First Parish Church parsonage, 54 Summer Street, Taunton

The Metcalf family stayed in Taunton until 1910 and then moved on to another Unitarian church in Winchester, Massachusetts. During his 10 years there, Rev. Metcalf took time out in 1918 to serve with the U.S. military in France. Instead of accepting an army commission, he preferred to serve as a civilian, nursing the wounded and providing spiritual and moral encouragement to frontline troops. His bravery in the face of enemy fire earned him a commendation from the commander of the soldiers with whom he worked. After the war, he took part in a relief mission to Transylvania on behalf of the American Unitarian Association.

Rev. Metcalf’s last years were spent at a Unitarian church in Portland, Maine. Arriving there in 1920, he continued both his ministry and the social service work that it entailed. He also kept his eyes to the heavens and remained an avid stargazer. He is credited with discovering or co-discovering 5 comets, 41 numbered asteroids, and several variable stars. Two main belt asteroids that he discovered, 726 Joëlla and 792 Metcalfia, are named for him.

Rev. Metcalf died unexpectedly on February 25, 1925, less than 2 months after his 59th birthday. He was buried in the Metcalf family plot in Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Metcalf Headstone, Evergreen Cemetery, Portland, ME

After rediscovering Metcalf’s comet in 1991, Mr. Brewington received advanced formal training and became a professional telescope operator at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, directed by the New Mexico State University. Even as a scientist fully versed in the modern technology of stargazing, he nevertheless relished the tiny part he and amateurs like Joel Metcalf had once played in furthering man’s search for meaning in the night sky. Relying on enthusiasm, simple telescopes, and sharp eyesight, they scanned the heavens searching for that magic smudge of light that might herald a previously undiscovered celestial body. Both Rev. Metcalf and Mr. Brewington enjoyed success and happiness in their stargazing endeavors and somewhere tonight, between Earth and Infinity, Comet 97P/Metcalf-Brewington tours the heavens.

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