Msgr. John V. Coffield, 91; Southland Cleric and Social Activist

By Dennis McLellan
Times Staff Writer

February 6, 2005

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.

Amin David, former chairman of the committee and president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a social issues advocacy group, once called Coffield "the closest thing Orange County has to angels or Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez."

David hasn't changed his opinion.

"In the contact I've had with [Coffield] over my life, he's always empowered us by his calmness, by his wisdom and what he stood for," David said Friday. "He stood for justice in the classical sense, and most emphatically in the spiritual sense."

Father Kerry Beaulieu, pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, said Friday that Coffield "loved being a priest and he loved people, and that was the driving force in his life."

Born in Indianapolis, Coffield began thinking about becoming a priest at age 5, when he would play at saying Mass with miniature red vestments his grandmother gave him.

Before moving to Long Beach, the family lived for a time in El Paso, and it was there, Coffield later wrote, "when I knew that I wanted to be a priest among Mexican people."

In 1975, Coffield was forced to retire from administrative duties at Our Lady of Guadalupe after he fell ill with the flu and had a lingering fever that sent him to a sanitarium in Hemet.

But he never really retired.

In 1981, he began serving as a priest at the newly established San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church, a small, predominantly Latino parish in the Dana Point neighborhood of Capistrano Beach. That same year, he was named a monsignor.

Coffield initially lacked the stamina to stand through Mass at San Felipe de Jesus, but his physical strength gradually returned -- as did his activism.

He joined an effort to provide affordable housing in Capistrano Beach by mobilizing his parishioners to turn out in large numbers at government meetings.

In 1984, when a 24-unit apartment complex for low-income families was erected on property next to the church, it was named after Coffield.

Until about two weeks ago, he continued to say Mass virtually every day at San Felipe de Jesus.

Coffield is survived by a brother, Vernon, of Los Angeles.

A vigil will be held at 7 this evening at San Felipe de Jesus, 26010 Domingo Ave.

The funeral will take place at 10 a.m. Monday at the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, 31520 Camino Capistrano.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Memorial to honor priest who fought segregation

By Jason Kosareff, staff writer

Monday, February 21, 2005 - EL MONTE -- A memorial service is planned Saturday for Monsignor John Coffield, a beloved minister to the early El Monte barrios and leading voice of desegregation in the city.

"He set in motion our ability to believe in ourselves," said Mayor Ernie Gutierrez, who was a boy in the Hicks Camp barrio when Coffield came to town. "That we can achieve something better than where we came from, our barrios."

Coffield died of congestive heart failure Feb. 2 at a Dana Point church. He was 91. El Monte officials invite the public to a ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday at Nativity Catholic Church, 3743 Tyler Ave.

Coffield is credited with co-founding the first Catholic church in El Monte, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, on what is now Coffield Avenue.

The Irish-born priest served in El Monte from 1943 to 1955.

His major impact on the city was a fight to desegregate public schools and government jobs.

Henry Lopes, 78, remembers a time in El Monte when police, postal workers, firefighters, city staff and teachers were all white. That all changed after Coffield took on City Hall, Lopes said. He won the desegregation fight in 1945.

"St. Paul too was a rebel," Coffield wrote at age 86 in his memoirs. "He didn't get along with the establishment. I suppose I didn't either and that's all part of my story."

Coffield kept up the fight for civil rights after he left El Monte. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and picketed with Cesar Chavez.

While at Ascension Catholic Church in Los Angeles in 1964, he wrote a letter to then-Archbishop of Los Angeles, James Francis McIntyre, denouncing him for supporting Proposition 14, which would have nullified state laws against discrimination in housing.

McIntyre ordered Coffield to not speak out on racial issues, so Coffield left for Chicago in self-imposed exile to protest McIntyre's views.

McIntyre was not the first clergy Coffield took on. When he arrived in the Medina Court barrio of El Monte, he found the pastor there didn't seem to care much for Mexicans.

"Much to the disgust of Father Denis, the pastor, I allowed the Mexican men upstairs to meet in my room," Coffield wrote. "I began to drink near beer with the men at our meetings. It triggered something in my body and I put on 30 pounds more weight."

Coffield had an easygoing style and lived his life as other men and women in the barrios.

"He used to box with my uncle," Lopes said. "He was a tough fighter."

Richard Perez, 64, remembers Coffield intervening in wars between the barrios or between the barrios and pachucos from other cities. When tensions heated between Hicks Camp and Medina Court, Coffield set up a boxing match to settle matters.

"He said, 'You're going to fight with gloves and after that, you're going to bury the hatchet,' " Perez said. "And you know what? It worked."

"He was the hoodlum priest," Lopes said. "He would help people out of jail."

More than that, Coffield would help young Mexican Americans get into college. Before 1952, only two Mexican Americans from El Monte went to college, Gutierrez said.

Coffield teamed with East Los Angeles College professor Dr. Helen Miller Bailey to get kids from El Monte and Rosemead high schools into college. Gutierrez was among the early youngsters Coffield helped in 1953. By 1955, he had helped scores of them.

"There's not enough words in Webster's English Dictionary to describe Father Coffield," Lopes said. "He was a good man."

San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Hundreds remember beloved Monsignor

By Gema Duarte, Staff Writer

Saturday, February 26, 2005 - EL MONTE-- Although most addressed him by his prestigious title, Monsignor John Coffield, those who benefited most from his relentless passion lovingly knew him as "Juanote" - a nickname derived from the Spanish pronunciation of John.

On Saturday, Coffield was remembered by hundreds of mourners during a memorial service at Nativity Catholic Church.

Coffield died of congestive heart failure Feb. 2 at a Dana Point church. He was 91.

The Irish-born priest served in El Monte from 1943 to 1955.

During his 12- year tenure in the city, Coffield fought to desegregate public schools and government jobs and bridge equality between Mexican-Americans and whites.

He encouraged and helped young Mexican-Americans - many of whom lived in the barrios that were full of gang violence - to earn a college education.

With his own money he purchased property to establish Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, on what is now Coffield Avenue, providing a church for many minorities.

Through his many battles against injustices, he became known as an advocate for the civil rights of minorities, even after leaving El Monte.

"I recall, as a youngster, a tall priest that came into our neighborhood-barrio with the energy and passion to help the less fortunate. A priest who saw problems and found solutions to our conditions," El Monte Mayor Ernie Gutierrez said during the service. Gutierrez lived in one of the barrios.

"A very young priest who gave us hope when there was none. He nourished the poor, often neglecting his own health to pay for funerals, food and other needs of the poor."

With only six months of experience in Spanish, Coffield explained in his book "Memoirs of Juanote," he was transferred to the barrios when a Spanish-speaking priest was needed at the Guadalupe Chapel to help the City Council with Mexican gang-violence issues.

His fascination with the Mexican culture generated before arriving to the poor barrios.

Coffield's desire to serve as a priest among Mexican people arose when his family moved from Indianapolis to El Paso, Texas, when his older brother, Mike, became sick with pneumonia.

His fight for social justice stretched from picketing with labor leader Cesar Chavez to marching with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the south.

"After coming back from marching with Martin Luther King he used the 'We Shall Overcome' song for the Mexican-American cause and as part of his service for some time," said Ben Campos, 71, who also was reared in the barrios.

The old church walls were filled with the memories of those the Monsignor touched with his positive energy. Many remembered how Coffield taught them to fight for justice, and how he encouraged them to earn college degrees with a Catholic foundation.

"The only one that can top Father John Coffield is the pope of Rome," said Henry Flores, 78 . "He was the greatest man I've known all my life."

February 23, 2005

Memories of Father John Coffield

Monsignor John Coffield, a beloved El Monte priest who ministered to those living in barrios in the early years of the City died of congestive heart failure Feb. 2 at a Dana Point church. He was 91.

        

By Ernie Gutierrez

As Mayor of the City of El Monte, founder and president of La Historia Society Museum, I am most importantly a recipient of Father Coffield's hard work and dedication to the families of El Monte and, more specifically, Hicks Camp where I grew up.

Hicks Camp was typical of many migrant camps where Mexicans and Mexican-Americans toiled in the vegetable fields - the only place we could work in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

I recall, as a youngster, a tall priest that came into our neighborhood-barrio with the energy and passion to help the less fortunate. A priest who saw problems and found solutions to our conditions. A very young priest who gave us hope where there was none. Who nourished the poor, often neglecting his own health to pay for funerals, food and other needs of the poor.

He saw in us a better today and tomorrow. How many people did he help in his tenure, as a disciple of Christ, no one knows.

He saw the poor and he helped them. He saw unjust policies, laws and Practices and he confronted them and he worked to solve them. He knew the system of segregation and prejudice, and in his divine way he gathered people and strength to resolve them.

I remember talking to Rev. Dwight Ramage, a Presbyterian who worked with him, to overcome the evils of school segregation. He met with city officials to deal with inbred practices that were unfruitful. He was able to organize the most afflicted and gave them courage to resolve their problems.

He saw the need for youngsters to attend college and he succeeded beyond belief. I am one of his prodigies. Has it not been for his work, I would not dream, plan and become a councilman and mayor of El Monte.

I know that his special touch, his spiritual leadership made a big difference in our barrios as we rose from poverty and neglect to honor his teachings and those of his and Our Savior.

For this and for the many interventions, I'm humbled to say that Father Coffield was a father, mentor and Godsend to El Monte.

I want to echo what Father John Coffield said to me upon his return from Arizona, after being sent by the L.A. Archdiocese -- with his black coat on his arm and his collar open -- He said, "Ernesto, Viva la Locura."

Father, we in El Monte, will miss you eternally. I want to thank you, publicly, for all that you did for us in El Monte.

Gracias, and until we see you again.

Memorial mass in honor of Monsignor John V. "Juanote" Coffield, will be held on Saturday, February 26 at 10 a.m. at the Nativity Church, 3743 N. Tyler Avenue in the city of El Monte. Reception and testimonials will follow at the Jack Crippen Senior Center at 12 noon.