Father James Coffey (1866-1923)
Notable South Dunedin Catholic Priest
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)