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Fr. John Coakley’s Passion for Retreat Ministry

Father Coakley
Fr. John Coakley celebrating Mass at St. Xavier High School, where he served from 1976 to 1984

When you meet Fr. John “Jack” Coakley, SJ, there are a few things you’ll learn in the first few minutes: He is an Irishman who loves to talk; he sees God’s work in his everyday life as a Jesuit; and he hopes that you meet God through him.

Father Coakley was raised on the South Side of Chicago. His father died eight days before he was to begin his freshman year at Saint Ignatius College Prep, and Fr. Coakley’s mother was unsure how she would be able to cover his tuition without his father’s income and with four other children to support. At the wake, Jesuit Frs. Laurence Barry and Raymond Grant, the school’s president and principal, told Mrs. Coakley that if Jack could maintain at least a B+ GPA, they would cover his tuition
and fees. Father Coakley recognized this as a true gift and worked hard to honor it.

More than 18 scholastics taught at Ignatius during Fr. Coakley’s time there, and he was impressed by the generosity of these Jesuits. During his senior retreat, he realized with certainty that God wanted him; he had a gut feeling that he was meant to be a Jesuit.

With this gut feeling and certainty in his heart, Fr. Coakley entered the Society of Jesus in 1957, right after high school. So many men were entering the Society then that he was sent to the novitiate in Florissant, Missouri, which was part of the former Missouri
Province.

Father Coakley received his BA and MDiv from Loyola University Chicago and his MA in counseling from Boston College. Early in his formation, he imagined himself teaching history, only to find that teaching was not his gift. As he spent his regency working at the newly opened Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, he discovered his passion for retreat work with young adults. He enjoyed walking with students as they grew in their faith.

Following ordination, Fr. Coakley was assigned to the Jesuit Spiritual Center in Milford, Ohio, to work on the youth retreat program. It was a good fit, given his gift of connecting people with their faith. He enjoyed seeing young people “sneak up on God” and realize God’s presence in their lives.

His joyful mission of connecting young people with their personal faith and the Lord continued in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as he got involved with campus ministry at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati and Loyola
Academy in Wilmette, Illinois.

Father Coakley put his gifts to daily use when he was missioned as chaplain of Loyola University Medical Center in the cardiology department for 20 years. He loved the work, as he was able to offer support in those moments people felt scared and nervous. He visited every patient, regardless of whether or not they were Catholic. When visiting patients, he always took a moment before entering the room and, in prayer, asked that this person meet God through him. Father Coakley guided patients to rely on their faith for strength and comfort during trying times. Patients connected with Fr. Coakley because of the way he demonstrated such joy in living his faith.

Father Coakley speaks to God in daily prayer, sharing his heart. He says that when he sees God in his next life, and God asks him his story, he will be able to see where God was with him along the way. Father Coakley has been a member of the Jesuit community at Colombiere Center since 2010, where he prays for the Church and Society, as well as the Midwest Province’s friends and benefactors.

Nora Dabrowski is the regional advancement director for the Midwest Jesuits in Michigan and northern Ohio. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and has worked with the Jesuits for over 26 years.

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