Triumphs and miscues of Father Charles Coughlin's radio ministry

Originally Appeared in : 9902-1/17/19
No doubt about it. Radio in the 1930s was the television and internet of today. It was a “bully pulpit” (to quote President Theodore Roosevelt) through which the American public could be reached. Catholics of average means in the Savannah (later Savannah-Atlanta) Diocese could be influenced by well-qualified and relatively unqualified radio speakers alike. One popular radio homilist was Father Charles Edward Coughlin, pastor of the Church of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. During the 1930s, Coughlin’s parish mailbox was said to be full of correspondence from those who had heard his weekly sermon on the air. Unfortunately, this “radio priest” strayed a bit too far from topics average congregations needed to hear and moved on to politics. That was the problem.
Born on Oct. 25, 1891, in Ontario, Canada, the future priest and radio personality was educated at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Even then, politics apparently appealed to Charles Coughlin as he debated whether to become a priest or a politician. Coughlin finally decided to enter the seminary and was ordained in Detroit in 1923. By 1926, he had become pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. Four years later, the young priest began broadcasting sermons to children via the airwaves. Before long, however, he found himself being drawn to political commentary. Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, and busily trying to extricate the U.S. from the Great Depression, soon won Father Coughlin’s approval. However, this approval, as often seemed to happen with Father Coughlin, didn’t last long. Disillusioned with Roosevelt and his “New Deal” by 1936, Coughlin began to seek allies and potential answers to the country’s problems elsewhere.
Amazingly, he found them in peculiar places. With Roosevelt’s 1936 term in progress, Father Coughlin — already a well-known Catholic “radio priest” — began disagreeing with the president’s policies and programs on the air. He also didn’t hesitate to express this disapproval in “Social Justice,” the magazine he had founded. Given this publication’s avowed hatred of communism, Wall Street and Jews, it was subsequently barred from the U.S. mail by 1942 when World War II had begun. That same year, the Catholic Church was also expressing its own disapproval of Father Coughlin’s political involvement.
Although, Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit had not earlier intervened in the situation, Bishop Edward A. Mooney of Detroit, who became bishop following Bishop Gallagher’s death, managed to curb Father Coughlin’s political activities by ordering him to confine himself to the duties of his priestly ministry, and even warning Coughlin that refusal to do so might result in the “radio priest” losing his priestly faculties.
The bishop’s action caused a real change in Father Coughlin’s attitude. Politics, once again, faded into the background as Coughlin dutifully returned to his true calling: the priesthood. (His promise to abandon his political agenda and resume his duties as pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower also resulted in the dropping of pending federal charges against him.) Father Coughlin served as the shrine’s pastor until his retirement in 1966. He was 88 years old when he died in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1979 following a brief illness. He was buried in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.
Though Father Charles E. Coughlin’s life was punctuated with many twists and turns both politically and personally, it ended without drama — providing a real contrast to his sometimes turbulent early career.
Columnist Rita H. Delorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.
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