Rev. James Thomas Coffey, pastor of St. Leo’s Catholic church at No. 2315 Mullanphy street in St. Louis, was born near Jefferson City, in Cole county, Missouri, November 8, 1861, his parents being Michael and Ann (Fitzsimons) Coffey, who were natives of Ireland and came to the United States in the ’40s as children with their respective parents, who made their way direct to St. Louis. Michael Coffey and Ann Fitzsimons were married in the old cathedral by Father Ryan, who was later archbishop of Philadelphia. Mr. Coffey was one of the pioneers in railroad construction in the west and was widely known as one of the builders of the North Missouri Railroad, now a part of the Wabash system, from St. Louis to Kansas City. He was also one of the builders of the Iron Mountain and subsequently of the Narrow Gauge, now the suburban line, from St. Louis to Florissant. He was likewise connected with the construction of other roads through the west and became widely known as a railroad builder, thus operating to the time of his death, which occurred in 1901.
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His son, James Thomas Coffey, was educated in St. Francis Seminary at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he pursued his preparatory and classical studies, and in 1882 went to Rome, Italy, to complete his preparation for the priesthood at the American College in Rome. He was there ordained on the 24th of July, 1887, by the cardinal vicar general of Rome, Cardinal Parochi. A year prior to the graduation of his class he had been ordained in recognition of his services in the college. He was called home by Archbishop Kenrick, who needed priests at that time, and was appointed assistant to Father Philip Brady, vicar general and pastor of the Annunciation church at Sixth and La Salle streets in St. Louis. There Father Coffey labored until 1889, when Father Brady was transferred to St. John’s, which was then the pro-cathedral, and Father Coffey went to St. John’s as assistant, thus remaining with Father Brady until the latter’s death in March, 1893. In the following April the archbishop appointed Father Coffey pastor of St. John’s and he presided over that parish until January 1, 1904, when he was made pastor of St. Leo’s parish, over which he has since presided.
In the intervening period, or in 1907, he built St. Leo’s Temperance Hall, a large hall for societies and assemblages, containing a big gymnasium with swimming pool and other equipment to provide clean and pleasurable entertainment and recreation. This is the largest private auditorium in St. Louis and was erected at a cost of seventy-five thousand dollars at a time when building prices were low. It could not be duplicated now for less than three hundred thousand dollars. Since 1904 Father Coffey has maintained a free school in his parish. one of the first free schools in the city, now having an enrollment of seven hundred and fifty pupils.
Father Coffey is a member of the Catholic Historical Society of St. Louis, also has membership with the Knights of Father Mathew and is a charter member of St. Louis Council, No. 453, of the Knights of Columbus. He is likewise a member of the Alumni Association of the North American College of Rome, one of the largest alumni associations in the country. Father Coffey is a man of genial disposition, greatly beloved by his people and esteemed by all who know him.