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

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.

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.