John Coffield -- person, priest and prophet
I first met Father John Coffield in the fall of 1954, when he spoke to a large group of us at St. John's Seminary
in Camarillo. Charlie Ara, then director of the seminary's Christian Life Forum, had invited John and had posted the announcements. After that, Charlie and his successors were told to submit the names of Christian Life Forum speakers several weeks ahead of time, so the chancery office could be notified and could say yes or no.
John impressed me deeply. During the
next six years as a seminarian, I wanted to be a priest like him. During my
two years at St. Mary's parish in Boyle Heights, I sensed the warmth of
his past work as pastor of nearby Dolores Mission. By then he was pastor at
Ascension parish in the South Central area. At St. Mary's we had a small Young Christian Workers group, so occasionally I watched John in action at regional meetings. He encouraged these devout young people to observe, judge and act, not to expect the clergy to have all the answers.
One evening in the early summer of
1964, John Coffield and my seminary classmate Father Bill DuBay came
to the door of St. Mary's rectory. They showed me Bill's draft of a
letter to Pope Paul VI. We sat and talked for an hour. We urged Bill not to
send the letter, and certainly not to publicize it. John and I thought naively that this kind of public pressure would be unwise and useless. Bill
took action anyway, of course. When reporters called me the next day, I
criticized Cardinal McIntyre's stand on race but said I didn't approve of
Father DuBay's appeal to the pope to remove the cardinal from
A few weeks later, the cardinal
sent John away for five months, because he had publicly opposed the racist
Proposition 14. In December, at the end of his "enforced vacation," he
requested and received a leave of absence from the archdiocese. He
mysteriously invited me and several hundred other people, mostly laity, to a
gathering at Ascension parish hall. There he announced that he would "go into
self-imposed exile" in Chicago as the strongest protest he could make.
The following June, Cardinal McIntyre was displeased by some letters I had written to auxiliary bishop Timothy Manning. I had criticized the way the archdiocese was ignoring issues
of prejudice and racial injustice, and especially the way priests with social
concerns were being punished. The cardinal told me to "show a change in
attitude, or find another diocese, or be prepared to suffer the consequences." Seminary alumnus John McFadden and I quickly discovered an opportunity to work as priests in Mexico. We received permission to go, and we packed our belongings. We were on our way to Mexico when the Watts riots erupted. The riots lasted for six days, leaving 34 dead, over a thousand people injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and hundreds of buildings destroyed.
The next time I saw John Coffield was in Cuernavaca, Mexico during the autumn of 1967. I was the acting pastor of Santa Catalina parish, and he was my guest for a month or two. Weekdays he
studied Spanish at the nearby language school operated by Msgr. Ivan Illich.
Evenings and weekends he helped at the parish. We prayed together, we celebrated Mass together, we took turns doing weddings, baptisms and visits to the sick. During long conversations we talked about our past and our future. I didn't even guess then that by the end of the year my wife Connie and I would be married and living in Illinois.
In 1976, we moved to Santa Ana,
California. We bought my mother's home and her business, a Catholic book store. John was pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Ana, and he became a frequent and loyal customer.
One day in 1981, Bishop William
Johnson of Orange told Father Wil Davis he would have more credibility as
director for continuing education of the clergy if he would agree to be a
monsignor. Wil said, "A number of priests in this diocese are more deserving of that title, especially John Coffield." Bishop Johnson agreed, and he included both of their names in the next announcement of papal honors.
2005 became the first time in many
years that Connie didn't receive a St. Valentine's Day card from "Padre
Juanote." I'm sorry our sons didn't get to know him well. We'll miss John, and we're glad he's praying for us while we're still in this life.
On February 6,
2005 I went to the vigil service for Msgr. John Coffield. About 400 people
were there, and many more had come and gone during the day. San Felipe de Jesús church is tiny, so most of us stood in the aisles of the church or in the patio, or in the parish hall. Other seminary alumni who came were Charlie Ara, Gerry Fallon, Mike Clements, Bob Thomas, Fernando Moreno (Bishop Manuel
Moreno's younger brother), Brian Drolet (who came from New York for the event), and seminary alumni clergy Juan Romero, Pete Nugent, Kerry Beaulieu, Steve Sallot and Wil Davis.
We heard and
exchanged dozens of stories about John Coffield's kindness to people, his
devotion to peace and justice causes, and his frequent confrontations with
church and government bureaucracies. Most of the speeches at the vigil
service and most of our conversations with the parishioners were in
Spanish. This wasn't a problem for Bob, Fernando, Juan, Pete and Wil, and it
wasn't too much of a problem for the rest of us.
The funeral Mass the next morning was at the San Juan Capistrano Mission parish church. Before the Mass,
Bill DuBay told me that after he publicized his letter to the Pope asking him remove the cardinal from office, John Coffield was the first person Cardinal McIntyre contacted. Summoned to the chancery office, John was accused of leading the conspiracy behind Bill's letter. The Cardinal reprimanded John severely, and ordered him say nothing about the incident or related issues if any newspaper, radio or TV reporter called him.
Close to a thousand people at the Mass were seated, and several dozen others stood in the aisles. Seminary alumnus Bishop Tod Brown presided. About 80 parish priests concelebrated, including Bishop Norman McFarland and Bishop Dominic Luong.
Seminary alumni at the Mass included
Bill DuBay, Paul Gaylord, Jim Mulherin, Don Reiman, Dennis Garvey, Mike
Clements, Gerry Fallon, Charlie Ara, Bob Thomas, Brian Drolet, Bob Jabro,
Desmond Colleran, Rick Erhardt and Fernando Moreno, and seminary alumni
clergy Kerry Beaulieu, Mike Heher, Wil Davis, Steve Sallot, Juan Romero, Chris Smith, John Urell, Gene Buhr, Tom Stehly, Art Holquin, Don Kribs, Joe
Greeley, Bill Barry, Pete Nugent, Tim Dyer, Ed Soto and Rick Sera. Some of the other parish priests present were John Sammon, Sean Flanagan, John Bradley, Eamon O'Gorman, Don Romito and John Joyce.
Other former clergy who came were
Jack Callanan and Jack Greeley. I also talked with Deacon Jesse Michel, Sara Beaman, Dwight Smith and Matt Ryder. Jesse's sister María and her husband Nicolás Sahagún lived near Camarillo and were friends of many seminarians. Sara is the widow of seminary alumnus Pete Beaman. Dwight and his wife Leah run the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana. Matt, former pastor of St. Callistus in Garden Grove, is now one of the married clergy at St. Matthew Ecumenical Catholic Church in Orange, California.
Kerry Beaulieu gave a marvelous homily at the Mass. He told what John Coffield was like as a person, as a priest and as a prophet. He mentioned John's pastoral work in El Monte, at Dolores Mission and at Ascension in the South Central area, his vocal opposition to the racist Proposition 14, his somewhat involuntary exile to Chicago, his marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his work with migrant workers in Oklahoma and later in the hills around the San Luis Rey mission, his tireless efforts in support of César Chavez and the grape pickers, his receiving his Ph.D. degree at age 60,and his spiritual and financial generosity to the poor in Santa Ana and later in Capistrano Beach. One detail Kerry mentioned was new to me. In the late 1930s when John was a teenager, his mother and other members of the St. Thomas More lending library invited Dorothy Day to speak to their group. When Dorothy Day was in Los Angeles on that occasion, she was an overnight guest in the Coffield home.
Kerry was until rccently the
elected vicar for priests of the Orange diocese. I remarked to him after the Mass that the mortuary didn't make much profit on the coffin, a simple wooden one. He said, "John left no specific instructions. I didn't like what I saw at the mortuary, so I went to the Internet. I found a local shop advertising cheap coffins, and I ordered that one. I knew it was what John would want."
About 200 of us attended the graveside service at Ascension Cemetery. Members of the parish choir sang hymns in Spanish. Kerry Beaulieu read the burial prayers and gave a short homily. Then he invited others to speak. I stepped forward first, and spoke about my admiration for John Coffield and my many contacts with him during the past 50 years. I could tell that most couldn't understand me, so I concluded my remarks with a short summary in Spanish.
The other speaker awed us all. When I first met young Juan Carlos at John's 50th ordination anniversary celebration in 1991, I told him that I had read about him in the newspaper. Now from his wheelchair at the graveside, he told his story in both languages: "The day after I fell from the freight train and lost both of my legs, Padre Juan visited me in the hospital. I told him to go away, that I didn't want any of his sacraments or counseling. The same scene was repeated the next two days. The fourth day I pretended to be asleep. He sat down and talked for a while, almost forcing me to smile. I was still faking sleep when he left the room. After that we were more friendly. When I left the hospital, I became a
guest in his home. He began to teach me English, and he helped me meet people in the community who are now my dearest friends. Wherever God takes me in this life, and in the life to come, I plan to love everyone the way Padre Juan does."