February 06, 2005
Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Retired Msgr. John V. Coffield, who devoted his more than six decades as a priest to social activism on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, even at the cost of alienating church superiors in the 1960s, has died. He was 91.
Coffield died of heart failure Wednesday at the rectory of St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point, said Ronaldo Tomas, a longtime friend.
Coffield's activism began in the 1940s, when the Spanish-speaking parish priest affectionately known as "Juanote" (Big John) led residents in helping improve living conditions in the El Monte barrio called Hicks Camp.
In the '60s, he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and supported Cesar Chavez's drive to unionize migrant farmworkers in California.
Over the decades, Coffield led residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties' barrios to fight city and county officials for better schools, housing, parks and trash collection.
His outspoken positions on racial and other civil rights matters led to frequent reprimands from the church in the 1960s.
In 1964, he clashed with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, then head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, over Coffield's campaign against Proposition 14, a ballot measure to repeal the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which banned discrimination in the sale or rental of most housing.
The measure passed, and Coffield went into self-imposed exile from the diocese as a protest for being, as he put it in a Times interview, "ordered to maintain silence on racism."
He spent the next four years in parish and social work in the Archdiocese of Chicago and in Oklahoma, where he ministered to migrant farmworkers.
Returning to California in 1968 after Proposition 14 was declared unconstitutional by the California and U.S. supreme courts, Coffield vowed to once more become involved in civil rights causes and to support "Cesar Chavez and his grape pickers in their struggle for dignity and justice."
"In those days," Chavez recalled in a 1991 interview with The Times, Coffield "was miles ahead of the church hierarchy in terms of human rights and labor rights, the things we take for granted today. He is a great advocate, truly living the Gospel."
Assigned to be pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church-Delhi in Santa Ana in 1969, Coffield continued working with the poor and helped found the Santa Ana Organizing Committee, which lobbied the city for better services for its Latino community.