Thoughts from a Peterborough priest in ‘an age of great transition’
Fr. Leo Coughlin has been helping others navigate through life for more than 60 years
About two years ago, one Saturday night, a neighbor of mine came over in deep distress.
Her elderly mother, recently arrived in Peterborough, was in hospital in the final stages of life. Unaffiliated with any church or temple, she was very apprehensive and agitated about death.
My neighbour just wondered if I knew anyone who might comfort her mother. I did.
Then I called my friend of 50 years, Fr. Leo Coughlin, age 86, at home. He is the most open and available person I know to anyone who calls.
Regardless of faith (or no faith), age, background, condition of life, familiar or unknown to him, he responds with a heart full of love and acceptance.
He is also a Roman Catholic priest of 60 years, thoroughly ecumenical, well-read, progressive and up-to-date on modern dilemmas.
Leo went to see Alice that very night and in the next few days, dropped by several times. “I didn’t talk God to her,” he told me. “I just held her hand and told her she was going home.
The images of her childhood home, a farm up near Owen Sound, seemed to bring her peace. I am happy I was able to know her.”
That is the pastor to people Leo Coughlin has become in his senior years. From an Irish Catholic farm family in Norwood, he was one of 10 siblings born to Charles and Agnes Coughlin.
After a public school education, he worked a year, mulling over the Catholic priesthood and finally entered St. Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough, being ordained in 1958. “I had a lot of friends, and I played sports, especially hockey, and it seemed right.”
Fr. Leo went to Parry Sound and “it was there I came to realize that the questions people were asking weren’t being answered by my education in traditional Catholic doctrine.”
He came to Peterborough to Sacred Heart parish, reading and thinking critically, and seeing the gap between what he calls “elevator theology” and the newer ideas around the divine spirit being found in nature and all things.
“There is so much beauty and goodness all around in people,” he says.
“I feel pain when traditional Catholic teaching refuses to include people, drives them away with rules.”
He went to Ottawa to study counselling and then spent 10 years listening to and encouraging clients to believe in their intuition and their own goodness.
These days Leo Coughlin lives with both heart disease and cancer, but he is joyful and thankful. In 2013 he was inducted into the Peterborough Pathway of Fame.
On May 27 at 11 a.m. at Sacred Heart church there will be a thanksgiving service for his 60 years of priesthood, to which the public is invited.
He leads a Tuesday book club for 20 people, writings by mystics and social justice activists of any faith. There is a public meeting once a month at the Mount Community Centre on such topics as Dance as Prayer, Faith and Feminism and The Inclusion of LGBTQ People.
“We are in an age of great transition,” he says, “and the institutional churches are very slow to get aboard.”
I asked him about conflict with the institutional church he is in.
“I am under the radar,” he says with a smile.
“I visit homes, the sick and dying, sometimes six in a day.” Yes, I see him tooling around in a small red convertible.
His own inner life is formed by walks in Jackson Park, where he says he feels at one with the world. “Creation is the first scripture,” he says. “I am the thinking part of Jackson Park.”
Fr. Leo’s favorite song is Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up. For him, that is true of the Lord he believes in and of the multitude of friends he has in Peterborough.
“There is so much beauty and goodness all around in people.” FR. LEO COUGHLIN