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Father James Coffey (1866-1923)

Notable South Dunedin Catholic Priest

Father James CoffeyIn the early twentieth century Father James Coffey, an Irish priest, came to embody the Catholic presence in southern Dunedin. Born in Newtown, County Tipperary, he was ordained in 1890 and travelled to New Zealand shortly afterwards. His first posts were in Gore and Lawrence, where his administrative abilities as well as his genial nature were soon apparent. In 1897 Father Coffey became parish priest in South Dunedin. This parish served Dunedin's largest concentration of Catholics. They were generally poor and had many social needs. Their schools and the Mercy Sisters' orphanage were important institutions in South Dunedin. Coffey was a huge man. His large size was matched by a big heart. A priestly colleague noted how, 'Debts disappeared before him, and undertakings that were full of terrors for ordinary people were only child's play for him'. These qualities brought promotion. From 1905 Coffey had city-wide responsibilities as administrator of St. Joseph's cathedral. With Bishop Verdon often ill, Father Coffey carried the burden of Catholic leadership. When the bishop died in 1918, he led the diocese until a new bishop was appointed in 1920. A great champion of education, he saw his church's schools as the key to improving the lot of ordinary Catholics. He died at Limerick in Ireland in 1923.

(Caricature, The Sketcher, 1915, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

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