John V. Coffield: Confrontation and Collaboration in the Face of the "Sin of Silence"

Coffield St Our Lady of Guadalupe El Monte CA.jpg

By Brishette Mendoza

From St. Brendan and Help of Christians on the westside, to El Monte’s Our Lady of Guadalupe to the east, Dolores Mission and Ascension in south Los Angeles, and Delphi and San Felipe de Jesus in Orange County, by the close of his more than fifty-year career as a priest, Monsignor John V. Coffield had served in an array of parish and community settings across Southern California and at times, elsewhere in the United States. Yet, what was especially notable about the Indiana-born priest’s years of work and service was that they were defined by Coffield’s at times confrontational community and political activism.

Whereas many others in civic and religious institutions maintained a posture and policy of silence to avoid confrontation with pressing societal dilemmas, Coffield, described by some not only as a priest, but also as a “single hearted maverick” and a “radical,” pursued direct engagement. As the priest increasingly operated as an active and vocal participant in the era’s labor, housing, anti-poverty, desegregation, and racial justice movements—ecclesial and political, his actions often challenged entrenched sensibilities favored by some in the Catholic Church hierarchy, in arenas of national and state politics, and in local neighborhoods and barrios.

Finding inspiration in the defiant actions of beloved ancestors and in his interactions with activists like Dorothy Day,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez as well as in the struggles and resolve of the parishioners, barrio residents and other community members with whom he would come to collaborate, Coffield’s participation in movements responsive to the dramatic national and international tensions, transitions, and tumult that characterized the twentieth century was distinctively intertwined with his impactful, lifelong co-laborer activism for change. 

Origins and Early Life  

Looking back, Coffield saw influences even in the earliest years of his life that pointed him not only to a life of priesthood, but also away from apathy, moving him instead in the direction of his eventual emphatic commitment to social justice activism and collaborative community engagement. John Vincent Coffield was born on January 24, 1914 in Indianapolis, Indiana to parents both of Irish immigrant descent, Marie Ready and John Varnum Coffield.[1] Coffield’s mother, Marie, “had a social conscience which rubbed off” on him.[2] She also exercised a sense of defiance from the days of her youth. From a more prosperous Irish family than that of Coffield’s father, John Varnum who “felt himself excluded from the ‘better’ Irish,” his mother’s “stubbornness won out” when she married Coffield’s father despite her parents' fervent efforts to dissuade her from doing so. For his part, Coffield’s father “studied hard and became a CPA, and later with more study at night, a lawyer.” Coffield pondered and asked reflectively. “He was a self-made man. Do I have some of him in me?”[3]   

Coffield’s parents were not the only ones to whom he attributed his own sense of stubbornness and resolve. “I suppose I got my spirit from Ge Ge Paw.” Coffield referring to his great grandfather Michael O’Connor, as he compared his own rebelliousness to that of his ancestor. “I have rebelled, done stupid things and gone into exile.” Coffield recalled that “Ge Ge Paw” would tell him stories of “how he and his rebellious buddies of the Black and Tan had escaped the English in Roscommon, Ireland. He had a price on his head, dead or alive, before he made his way to America and ended up in Indianapolis.” Grandfather O’Connor also told the story of joining the North in the U.S. Civil War. “If one doesn’t have a cause to fight for, life’s not worth living,” he admonished his great grandson, who sat upon his knees listening intently.[4]

Coffield’s interest in becoming a priest was kindled by a childhood gift from his grandmother.[5] “My grandmother who was praying for a grandson to be a priest had made me a set of little red vestments, to play saying Mass,” Coffield reminisced. He was in the third grade at the time.[6] An interest in Mexican Americans, he wrote, emerged for him as a teen when he lived with his mother and siblings in El Paso before moving to Los in the late 1920s where he and his brother Mike would attend Loyal High School.[7]

 After arriving to Los Angeles, Coffield was prodded to link ideals about love for others, so central Catholic spiritual thought, to tangible action by the example of two women in particular—Dr. Julia Metcalf, a medical doctor from Boston who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces in France during WWI, and Dorothy Day, a journalist and radical Catholic social activist, known for "her houses of hospitality for the poor started in New York and spread to many cities in the U.S.."[8] Coffield's interactions with both Metcalf and Day would prove to be formative. The activism of Metcalf and Day, which it times put them at odds with institutions and sometimes with the law, was, to Coffield, situated in a historical continuum of Catholic thought that had, through the eras of history, called upon the people of the religion to actively address the challenges that subsumed the world.

Of Metcalf, who he endearingly called “Dr. Julia,” Coffield explained, "she was a daughter of the 'Catholic Renaissance' that had never been totally repressed by Rome. From the time of Martin Luther the Catholic Renaissance faced new challenges with each age. It survived Jansenism, France’s enlightenment, German's Kulturkampf, Larcodaire (again in France), and continued vitally in both France and in England. It had not done well in the United States."[9] Some saw this vivacious and persistent energy manifested in calls for renewal in the Catholic Church that gained increasing momentum over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, aspects of which would find expression in changes that emerged from the Vatican II Council of the early 1960s, called by Pope John XXIII. Coffield keenly observed that "Dr. Julia and her group in the 20s were pushing for renewal in the church, way before Vatican II."[10]

"One of the most profound influences" of his life, Coffield wrote, was when he and his mother "joined the Thomas More Catholic Lending Library" Metcalf had formed.[11] It was her engaging enthusiasm along with her "marvelous collection of the best Catholic books available" that were impactful, drawing others like Coffield and his mother into a group of library members. Coffield recognized, moreover, the clear affinity between Metcalf's efforts and the activities of "one sympathetic person in the hierarchy, Monsignor O'Dwyer of St. Mary's parish in Boyle Heights, "the beloved priest for the members of the library," who "sought justice outside the parish and diocese" and "support in Washington and in Sacramento for fair housing and other social causes."[12]

Coffield’s interest in social causes and service to others was further nourished when Metcalf invited Doris Day to come give a talk for the library group. Excitedly, Metcalf "phoned all the members. Dorothy Day is arriving here from New York, please come." Coffield came to share Metcalf’s appreciation of Day, a woman he described as "one of the most famous front line apostles of the twentieth century" and who he admiringly said, "gave herself to the poor, lived with them and ate the food they ate."  Co-founding the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin from France in 1933, Day published and co-edited a paper, "a penny tabloid 'The Catholic Worker,' which sold on the streets of New York giving examples of how Christ's teaching would be lived out."[13]

Dorothy Day's influence reverberated with Coffield and members of the library for years to come, as did her own continuing activism. George Putnam, a member of the library group and a young student at the time of Day’s talk to them was so inspired "that he started a branch of the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles." Coffield recalled that "George's House of Hospitality gave food and clothing to the poor and kept many people busy," including Coffield himself who volunteered there. Coffield's mother was a board member.[14] At St. Patrick’s seminary where Coffield was a student earlier on in his seminary education, he got permission for Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker Movement co-founder to speak. Day spoke as well. Coffield described it as “one of the most mystical experiences” of his life. “I cried for joy,” he said. “Here the Gospel lived, not just mouthed and it lived among the poorest!”[15] Coffield would later encounter Day in 1973 in Fresno where supporters of Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union had picketed and been arrested. Arriving to celebrate a Victory Mass at their release, Coffield saw Day, who at the age 75 by that time, was "still fighting for justice–on the picket lines and in jail."[16]

As World War II raged around the globe, a twenty-six-year-old Coffield reported on his draft card that he was a divinity student at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.[17] With ground broken for the building of the seminary just a few years before in 1938, Coffield would be among the first to graduate from the new school. There, Coffield found himself in the company of a handful of fellow seminarians who, in the course of their later service as ordained clergymen in the Los Angeles diocese, would become increasingly with what they came to see as the church’s failure to take a clear stand against racism and other forms of injustice.[18]While at the seminary and at teaching catechism at St. Anne’s, a mission church in Santa Monica, Coffield was visiting a home and speaking with a mother in Spanish when “her child encouraged him. The child said to Coffield, “If you try, you can learn to speak Spanish.” Thereafter, Coffield got to know the family of Felipe Rodelo there. The father, a gardener, helped him with his Spanish.”[19] Alongside members of his class, Coffield was ordained on June 7, 1941.[20]

Emerging action, rising confrontation

Concerning his post-seminary parish assignment, Coffield “had hinted to the ‘higher ups’ that he would “be delighted to be in a Spanish-speaking one working among the poor.” Instead, he was “assigned to a ‘well-to-do’ parish. ‘Lord, what’s up?” Weeks after ordination, it was off to his first assignment, St. Brendan’s on Los Angeles’s west side.[21] However, Coffield’s sermons met the objections of Bishop Cantwell for not being “sufficiently traditional” and “Father Fogarty asked for a different assistant.” In little over one year’s time at St. Brendan Coffield was assigned to Our Lady of Help Christian parish, which was composed of an Italian and Spanish Speaking membership.[22] There for just six months, Coffield facilitated athletic activities like handball and basketball for the neighborhood kids. There he also formed a lasting friendship with Phil and Lupe Santos. The couple “knew how to organize, keep and accurate account of what was bought, sold and made sure of the profits.” These “able helpers” would help him “for years in every fiesta.”[23]

Then Coffield received a call and was given a new parish assignment. He was to serve as an assistant at the Nativity Church parish in El Monte.[24] Little did Coffield know at the time that it was in El Monte where he would come to be known endearingly as “Juanote,” co-found Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and one day have a street and a day named after him largely in response to how he approached his time there. His communal life would become increasingly centered on conversations focused on improving conditions of inequality in El Monte, echoing discourse unfolding at the national level, and giving rise to Coffield’s immediate participation in collective critique and collaborations for change.     

At the time of his arrival in 1943 at the Nativity parish in El Monte where Coffield would serve for twelve years, the El Monte City Council was concerned by the presence and activity in the city of gangs at the time, “one from each barrio: Hicks, Hayes, Flores, and Mission, from all around El Monte,” Coffield recalled.  “The City Council petitioned the Presbyterian and the Catholic Churches for help.” The Los Angeles Chancery of the Catholic Church also detected its own need for help in El Monte since the priest serving there, Father Ginty, “spoke inadequately in Spanish” and the priest previously working with the Guadalupe Chapel there which served Spanish speaking parishioners, “was old and had a drinking problem.” In light of these inadequacies, the Chancery sent Coffield. [25]

Coffield tried to make sense of the problems and challenges that plagued both city and parish there in El Monte. “Most of the parents were immigrant farm workers, who had gone no further than 6th grade in school in Mexico. Eighty percent of the youth population had dropped out of school.” He observed that since Spanish speaking families lived in the barrios around El Monte, they were scattered among its “separate small communities.” It was in this context that “the youth were very protective of their own barrio ‘turf’ and had gang wars with other barrios.”[26]

The conditions that characterized the area’s church and parish chapel, Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Hayes barrio, El Monte’s education system and housing were also implicated. When he first arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe, he noticed that “the only bell to call people was an old broken bell which didn’t make much of a sound.” Moreover, “the little chapel was there because the Spanish speaking residents of El Monte did not feel welcome in the Nativity Church.” As an immediate remedy, Coffield “went to a junk yard, bought an auto brake drum and installed it as the chapel’s new bell.”[27] It was a start, but would not be the end of changes that needed to be seen and heard in El Monte. 

Change accelerated as Coffield and other community members became increasingly vocal about the problematic nature of the El Monte school system. With the arrival of Rev. Dwight and Holly Ramage, Coffield and residents in El Monte found a sense of shared outrage at the segregation that characterized the town’s schools. Together, Mexican-American leaders like Don Ignacio Gutiérrez and parent groups, organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Federation of Hispanic American Voters, and ministers were able to effectively act cooperatively in opposition to the inequality of El Monte’s segregated elementary schools and in support of the more antagonist measures including a lawsuit that proved necessary to end segregation in the district in 1945.[28] 

El Monte’s Mexican American residents were also frequently subjected to clear social ostracism and inequity as well as unequal protection from law enforcement. Among other injustices, Coffield took note of the treatment of the El Monte’s Mexican American youth, including those who called themselves Pachucos and were also known Zoot Suiters, and those who were WWII war veterans. Zoot Suiters, many of whom had been unable to sign up for military service (who as an alternative source of identity expression developed their own style of slang and dress) and El Monte’s Mexican American veterans alike were subjected to the racism, intimidation, and indifference of whites around them. Coffield recalled one night during the Zoot Suit Riots of June 3-8,  1943 when he got a phone call at the rectory. “Father, they are coming. A whole caravan, about 40 cars, full of Anglo toughies and Marines. They started beating zoot suiters in Los Angeles, and now are heading for El Monte.” After a failed attempt to rouse the El Monte police to action, Coffield wrote that he went to Hicks himself to make sure the soldiers and others did not enter, and they did not. Yet, Coffield remained “hyped up” for days from what had transpired.[29] He fumed. “The injustice surrounding the ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ was a cause that made my blood boil because of how they were portrayed by Anglo society.”[30]   

In 1946, Rev. Coffield formed a committee with three other local ministers—Rev. Louis Velasco and Rev. Dwight Ramage, both of the Presbyterian church, and Rev. Manuel Gonzales, of the Pentecostal Church—to identify and secure a plot of ground sizable enough for the possible relocation of six hundred Spanish-speaking residents of El Monte’s Hicks Camp neighborhood. The tract of land would become necessary in the event of the eviction and displacement of the residents following an announcement by Stanley Hicks that he was considering proposals to sell the 69-acre tracts for industrial purposes. Revealing his knowledge of the history of the camp, founded in 1910, and an attentiveness to the voices of the residents who had not only lived there but built it, Rev. Coffield explained the significance then of the shared efforts to find a plot of land with the residents themselves in mind. The endeavor, he said, had as its goal securing ground upon which the residents would be able to “build and continue their community life they have known so long.”[31] This episode was one of many wherein Coffield engaged in speech and action—as confrontational as collaborative—that called attention to priorities of power at work in the building, destruction, and re-building of community life and place. 

Coffield often fulfilled a vital leadership role in planning and carrying out festive annual community events, most notably, marking Noche de Grito, an occasion widely celebrated in both Mexico and the U.S., that rallies the memory of the revolutionary Mexican fight for independence. In El Monte, with Coffield’s involvement, the celebrations also functioned as anti-poverty fundraisers. For example, Coffield and the members of the community together raised money for “youth and community” through the El Monte celebration in September of 1953 which featured a parade and the iconic election of a queen.[32] The annual celebration became widely beloved, garnering broad acclaim in the area. In 1954, “Mexican-American girls from El Monte and surrounding communities” competed “for the title of fiesta queen” the winner crowned “in the Civic Center by television star Danny Thomas.”[33] Gradually, Coffield’s actions evidenced a desire to engage in and with community members in innovative and solidarity-affirming ways.  

 Coffield’s community engagement burgeoned over time, from activities typical of ordained priests oriented around more narrow aims in the service of local community members to becoming increasingly concerned with larger systemic causes. Coffield’s relationship to church hierarchical authority, particularly as exerted by Cardinal McIntyre grew decidedly confrontational as attentiveness to large-scale societal concerns and injustices were cast and held at the margins of normative ecclesial sanction by the Los Angeles archdiocese. By 1963, Coffield proponents suspected that institutional forces were at work to repress the voice of the priest who had apparently increasingly addressed racial issues in the context of his messages addressed to his parishioners and to the broader community. On August 16 of that year, members of an organization called CURE (Catholics Unified for Racial Equality) picketed at the Roman Catholic Chancery office, claiming that Coffield had been scheduled to speak at Loyola University for a Recollection Day service, but had been prevented from doing so.[34] 

Protesters from the CURE organization picket supporting Rev Coffield.jpeg

Protesters from the CURE (Catholics Unified for Racial Equality) organization picket in front of the Roman Catholic Chancery building claiming that Rev. Coffield was prevented from speaking at the Brotherhood program at Loyola University. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Especially pivotal to the trajectory of Coffield’s activities and reception was the campaign season leading up to California’s November 1964 vote on Proposition 14, a ballet initiative that reversed the protections put in place through the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act, authorizing overt racial discrimination in housing. Emphatically opposing the proposition was not a popular stance, even among seemingly aligned groups like Black and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. Disagreement existed even among Mexican Americans about whether to oppose the proposition. “South El Monte mayor Joseph Vargas, for example, strongly supported Proposition 14.”[35] Then pastor of the Ascension Catholic Church in south Los Angeles, Coffield nonetheless, like a handful of other members of the clergy, had spoken out attempting to arouse public opposition. Coffield’s former classmate at St. John’s seminary, William DuBay, wrote a letter to Pope Paul VI “asking him to remove McIntyre as archbishop and charging the archbishop with failure to deal with race in California.”[36] DuBay was then transferred away from his post in Compton, California as a consequence. Coffield was suspected of encouraging DuBay and was put on an “enforced vacation.” Upon returning from the “vacation” Coffield was asked by McIntyre to refrain from talking about race, yet the priest preached "a strong sermon" anyway, "condemning 'the colossal injustice done to our richly pigmented and moderately pigmented brothers and fellow citizens of California at the polls on November 3,” referring to the passage of Proposition 14. Coffield was chided by McIntyre for expressing his views. As the dilemma was framed by McIntyre as a matter of obedience to authority and described by Coffield as a matter of protest against “the continuing evil of silence,” Coffield concluded that “self-exile” would be the only tenable response to the impasse at the time.   

Coffield was not alone in attracting institutional reprimand along with public notoriety for his posture of opposition to silence and inaction of the local Catholic Church leadership embodied the increasingly antagonistic dynamic that characterized his relationship to institutional authorities of the Los Angeles diocese. There were others at both the local and national levels who similarly sparked the ire of church leadership and the fascinated scrutiny of public opinion. Inflamed by the public revelation of DuBay’s cable to Pope Paul VI, tensions had reached a fever pitch in the diocese. In this contentious institutional climate, Rev. Coffield donned the label of being “a charter member of the CCC—the ‘Cardinal’s Carpet Club’,” a designation priests who had been reprimanded by Los Angeles archbishop cardinal James Francis McIntyre had bestowed upon themselves.[37]  One Catholic periodical, the Indiana-based weekly Ave Maria, stimulated widespread discussion after publishing a list of 13 “silenced priests,” which included Coffield. The New York Times noted that the issue did not make any attempt at sampling the “hierarchical point of view."[38] The magazine special issue implicitly favored the position of the ministers it profiled. Its supportive stance towards the ministers was not received agreeably by all readers. Unimpressed with the story and with Coffield, Joseph R. Thomas, managing editor of the Catholic Advocate, characterized the special issue as a “journalistic dud” and described it as shedding little light on the true conflict at the core of the treatment of the identified priests—"the authority-freedom problem.” Thomas devoted a portion of his critique specifically to what he termed the “questionable” inclusion of Rev. Coffield on the list of the thirteen priests reportedly relegated to silence, since “he voluntarily left that archdiocese and no discipline had been imposed on him despite his disagreements with James Francis Cardinal McIntyre on racial questions.”[39]

Self-imposed Exile

“A Buddhist monk could use self-cremation as the strongest form of protest.” Rev. John V. Coffield said. “Self-imposed exile” was “the strongest protest” that he could make, the Roman Catholic priest explained, addressing the nearly 1,000 people gathered at a farewell reception held in his honor at the Darby Park Auditorium in Inglewood on Sunday, December 27, 1964.[40] 

Priest-Takes-Race-Protest-Into-Exile-The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Dec_28__1964 top.jpeg

Newspaper article clipping with photo: Accompanied by his mother, Marie, Rev. Coffield greets parishioners and other well-wishers at the reception held in his honor in Inglewood, California on December 27, 1964, the eve of the beginning of his “self-imposed exile.”

Following years of institutional ecclesial reprimand and increasingly public disagreement with various local entities and the Los Angeles archdiocese over Rev. Coffield’s activism and vocal opposition to racism, injustice, and discrimination, Coffield embarked on what he described as a “painful” separation from the Southern California terrain in which he had lived and labored, both in solitude and in solidarity with others, over the previous decades.[41]

            After the farewell gathering that saw Coffield off to his exile, the reprimanded priest received a cordial welcome at St. Carthage rectory in Chicago, in “a predominantly Negro parish.”[42] In March 1965, Coffield was a part of the Chicago Delegation to Selma that included members of the Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) and a number of other Catholic groups.[43] When Coffield joined Martin Luther King, Jr. on that iconic march in Alabama for voter rights and against racial injustice constituting the repression of African Americans, he did so as part of a wave of clergy who felt a restlessness with the notion being relegated to the sidelines of the 20th-century American Civil Rights movement.

Coffield recalled one point during the march, when he and a line of fellow marchers from various backgrounds “were standing there facing the sheriffs. One young girl was so afraid that urine was running down her leg. One sheriff mocked her by pointing out her embarrassment.” Then, the tenacious, hopeful melody the marchers had sang so frequently throughout the march came to mind. Coffield thought, “Let’s sing,” and he “began ‘We shall overcome…’” his “voice trembling with the tension.”[44] Coffield wrote that once back in Chicago, he “began to receive ‘hate’ mail telling”  him “what a wicked priest” he was and that he “was doing irreparable harm to the Church.”[45] During his time in Chicago, Coffield studied with Saul David Alinsky, whose confrontational approach and varied tactics of advocacy included taking the fight for justice to “city halls and boards of supervisors.”[46] Alinsky said, “If you are not in anger, get out of social work.” Coffield acknowledged that he “had been repressing anger.”[47] Coffield continued. And in the interim period prior to his return to California, he also spent time serving a community in Oklahoma where his interest in farm workers’ rights was further solidified, gaining strength.[48]

Bolder: The End of Exile

In September of 1968, Coffield returned to Los Angeles. Upon returning to the Los Angeles area from his four-year “self-exile,” Coffield expressed that he modulated and located his activism in response to local, state, and national developments. For instance, he felt he could return “now that there had been a court ruling throwing out Proposition 14,” there had been recent “cooperation between the archdiocese and the Urban League to secure jobs for minority persons, and “on the national level,” and he observed that the church had “made a strong moral commitment to justice (in open housing).”[49]

Reading significant civil rights progress into changes witnessed across the country for African Americans, Coffield opined that the time had come to focus to a greater extent on the rights of “our brown brothers,” particularly the rights of the farm workers and the rural poor which were, in his view being pummeled by “multimillion-dollar agri-business.”[50] At the age of fifty-three, the rejuvenated priest turned his attention to supporting Cesar Chavez and California’s migrant farm workers. Coffield himself picketed an El Monte supermarket within two months of his return to the area in late October and early November of 1968, protesting the purchase of table grapes as “one way of seeking social justice.”[51]

Priest-defies-cardinal-to-picket supermarket-LATimes-Sat-Nov_2_1968-top.jpeg

Newspaper clipping with photo: Rev. Coffield pickets outside an El Monte supermarket. Protesting in support of farm laborers, he is wearing a handwritten sign that reads, “Please Don’t Buy Grapes,” a slogan popularized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Source: Los Angeles Times

Despite Coffield’s perception that his superior’s positions toward social justice activism had softened, on October 29, 1968, it became apparent that this was not the case when James Francis Cardinal McIntyre formally withdrew Coffield's "’faculties’ as a priest in retaliation for the clergyman's pursuit of what he believes to be 'social justice," denying Coffield the permission to say Mass or to preach.”[52]

Later a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church-Delhi in Santa Ana, Coffield was apparently still undeterred by the accumulation of institutional reprimands to which he was already subject. After “sixty priests, ministers and nuns picketed and were arrested and jailed in Fresno, California on August 20, 1973, during “the struggle between Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers Union and the teamsters Union over control of California farm workers,” Coffield took “a group of nuns and seminarians up” to support Chavez’ efforts and there gratifyingly encountered his long-time role model in activism, Dorothy Day.[53] 

“Retirement” and Return

            In the later decades of his life, Coffield’s health deteriorated, limiting his activism as the 1970s marched on. In 1975, Coffield formally “retired” as he suffered from a mysterious fever. Nonetheless, in 1981, Jesse Michael, who was asked to be a deacon at Capistrano Beach’s San Felipe de Jesus parish, asked Coffield to come serve as priest. Coffield accepted the assignment in the Orange County diocese. The same year, he received the title of monsignor.[54] Serving at the parish from 1981 through 1991, his work on housing in the Orange County area resembled his earlier projects such as those concerning Hicks Camp. He encouraged parishioners at the Capistrano Beach church to “turn out in large numbers at government meetings.”[55] At Capistrano Beach, redevelopment interests again imposed on the lives of the seaside community’s economically vulnerable residents, as they had a Hicks Camp.[56] As in the past, Coffield’s direct calls for consideration were welcomed by some and dismissed by others. “‘He wanted the whole valley in affordable housing,’” quibbled Lawrence F. Buchman, “a San Juan Capistrano councilman and landowner” there who rejected Coffield’s suggestion to use his property for low-income housing.

Coffield’s ideas, however, were apparently shared by more than a few members of the community. “A 24-unit apartment complex was built on the land next to the church and occupied by low-income families” that was named after Coffield.”[57] On June 16, 1991, a large celebration with an attendance list approaching nearly 1,000 people was held at San Juan Capistrano Mission in honor of Coffield’s 50th anniversary as a priest. One of the guests, Coffield’s friend labor rights advocate Cesar Chavez, reflected on Coffield’s historic advocacy. “In those days he was miles ahead of the church hierarchy in terms of human rights and labor rights, the things we take for granted today.”


[1] “John V. Coffield,” Birth Certificate. 24 Jan 1914. Indiana Archives and Records Administration; Indianapolis, Indiana; Births; Year: 1914; Roll: 010, Indiana, U.S., Birth Certificates, 1907-1940; Coffield, John V. “Ancestors of Msgr. John V. Coffield,” in Memoirs of Juanote, Millennium Edition. 2000, 73. Both of Coffield’s grandfathers, Michael Ready and Thaddeus Coffield, immigrated to the United States from Ireland.

[2] “Coffield, Mary R. against John V” Divorce Suits Filed. Los Angeles Times, Dec 17, 1932; “John V Coffield” [Coffield] in the 1940 United States Federal Census. Year: 1940; Census Place: Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California; Roll: m-t0627-00257; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 19-777.

[3] Coffield, John V. Memoirs of Juanote, Millennium Edition. 2000, 3-4.

[4] Coffield, John V. Memoirs of Juanote, Millennium Edition. 2000, 1.

[5] Berkman, Leslie. “Many Count O.C. Priest among their Blessings” Anniversary: Those Touched by Social Activism and 'Magic' of Msgr. Coffield Will Help Him Mark a Milestone." Los Angeles Times, Jun 02, 1991.

[6] Memoirs of Juanote, 4.

[7] Memoirs of Juanote, 5.

[8] Memoirs of Juanote, 10.

[9]  Memoirs of Juanote, 7-8.

[10] Memoirs of Juanote, 8.

[11] Memoirs of Juanote, 7.

[12] Memoirs of Juanote, 8.

[13] Memoirs of Juanote, 10.

[14] Memoirs of Juanote, 11.

[15] Memoirs of Juanote, 13.

[16] Driscoll, Marjie. "Activist Priest Pursues Dignity for Barrio's Poor,” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1973. Arriving later, none from Coffield’s group of nuns and seminarians had got arrested in the midst of the confrontations.

[17] “John V. Coffield” WWII Draft Registration Card. National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; WWII Draft Registration Cards for California, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 344.

[18] Donovan, John T. “The 1960s Los Angeles Seminary Crisis.” The Catholic Historical Review 102, no. 1 (2016): 69–96., 74.

[19] Memoirs of Juanote, 15.

[20] Memoirs of Juanote, 3.

[21] Memoirs of Juanote, 19.

[22] Memoirs of Juanote, 22.

[23] Memoirs of Juanote, 23.

[24] Memoirs of Juanote, 24.

[25] Memoirs of Juanote, 24.

[26] Memoirs of Juanote, 24-25.

[27] Memoirs of Juanote, 25.

[28] Gutiérrez, Olga. “Analyzing Segregation in El Monte: The Lexington School,” MA

thesis, California State University, Los Angeles, 1981.

[29] Memoirs of Juanote, 30.

[30] Memoirs of Juanote, 29.

[31] "Tract Sale May Evict 600 from 'Hick's Camp'." Los Angeles Times, Feb 13, 1946

[32] "Mexican Fete Planned by El Monte Unit." Los Angeles Times, Aug 16, 1953. The naming of a queen was a relatively common feature for community celebrations of the era. This contest, nonetheless, was also suggestive of valid questions about notions of gender inherently implied.

[33] “'Noche De Grito' Fiesta Planned in El Monte." Los Angeles Times, Sep 12, 1954.

[34] "Pickets March at Catholic Chancery here." Los Angeles Times, Aug 17, 1963.

[35] Felker-Kantor, Max. “Fighting the Segregation Amendment: Black and Mexican American Responses to Proposition 14 in Los Angeles.” In Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition, edited by Josh Kun and Laura Pulido, 1st ed., 143–75. University of California Press, 2014.

[36] Donovan, John T. “The 1960s Los Angeles Seminary Crisis.” The Catholic Historical Review 102, no. 1 (2016): 69–96.

[37] "L.A. Priests Breaks With Cardinal." San Francisco Chronicle, December 28, 1964; "A Cardinal Conservative." Newsweek, Jun 24, 1968, 65. In the post-Vatican Council II institutional religious environment of the late 1960s, Cardinal McIntyre was, on the one hand, extolled nationally among those belonging to conservative circles in the Catholic Church for his conservative bona fides, insistence upon “orthodoxy” and his staunch resistance to change and especially to critical calls for response or action related to matters of racial injustice. On the other hand, McIntyre was challenged and picketed by a number of other Catholics, namely “liberal theologians, priests and nuns, Catholic social-action groups such as the “unofficial Catholic Human Rights Commission and a new Association of Laymen” and others variously dubbed “liberal Catholics” for, among other things, his “failure to fight racism”; Young, Scott. "Into the Lion's Den." The Globe and Mail, Jul 24, 1964.

[38]  Cogley, John. "Cases of 13 'Silenced Priests' Described by Catholic Weekly." New York Times, Jan 04, 1966.

[39] Thomas, Joseph R. “Good Try, No Cigar.” The Catholic Advocate, Volume 15, Number 4, 20 January 1966.” The Catholic Advocate, January 20, 1966.

[40] Thrapp, Dan. "Priest Takes Race Protest into 'Exile': Differences with Cardinal Told at Parish Farewell PRIEST." Los Angeles Times, Dec 28, 1964: A1.

[41] Thrapp, Dan. "Priest Takes Race Protest into 'Exile': Differences with Cardinal Told at Parish Farewell Priest." Los Angeles Times, Dec 28, 1964.

[42] "Father Coffield Praises Reception in Chicago: But Private View of some Diocese Aides is that Priest's Presence is Embarrassing." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jan 07, 1965.

[43] Hite, Gregory Nelson. “The Hottest Places in Hell: The Catholic Church and Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama, 1937-1965.” ​​University of Virginia, 2002.

[44] Memoirs of Juanote, 103.

[45] Memoirs of Juanote, 103.

[46] Berkman, Leslie. “Many Count O.C. Priest among their Blessings” Anniversary: Those Touched by Social Activism and 'Magic' of Msgr. Coffield Will Help Him Mark a Milestone." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jun 02, 1991.

[47] Memoirs of Juanote, 97.

[48] McLellan, Dennis. “Msgr. John V. Coffield, 91; Southland Cleric and Social Activist." Los Angeles Times, Feb 06, 2005.

[49] Thrapp, Dan L. "Father Coffield Ends Exile, to Resume Civil Rights Fight." Los Angeles Times, Sep 06, 1968, 3.

[50] Thrapp, Dan L. "Father Coffield Ends Exile, to Resume Civil Rights Fight." 1968, 25.

[51] "Priest Defies Cardinal to Picket Supermarket: Considers Activity in Grapes Boycott as 'One Way of Seeking Social Justice'." Los Angeles Times, Nov 02, 1968:19.

[52]  "Priest Defies Cardinal to Picket Supermarket: Considers Activity in Grapes Boycott as 'One Way of Seeking Social Justice'." Los Angeles Times, Nov 02, 1968.

[53] Driscoll, Marjie. "Activist Priest Pursues Dignity for Barrio's Poor,” Los Angeles Times,1973. Notably, none from Coffield’s group had got arrested in the midst of the confrontations.

[54] McLellan, Dennis. “Msgr. John V. Coffield, 91," Feb 06,2005.

[55] McLellan, Dennis. “Msgr. John V. Coffield, 91," Feb 06,2005.

[56] Berkman, Leslie. "A Valley of Poverty Lies Huddled Amid Affluence: Barrio – Shanties Near the Seashore." Los Angeles Times, Jun 13, 1982.

[57] Berkman, Leslie. “Many Count O.C. Priest among their Blessings” Anniversary: Those Touched by Social Activism and 'Magic' of Msgr. Coffield Will Help Him Mark a Milestone." Los Angeles Times, Jun 02, 1991.

John V. Coffield: Confrontation and Collaboration in the Face of the "Sin of Silence"