Upstate pastor goes from cloister to community builder
By SHEILA OJENDYK
MAULDIN — Father Howard Coughlin has traveled an intriguing road from his birth Jan. 3, 1927, in Youngstown, Ohio, to his role of pastor emeritus at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He was the eighth of 12 children of Joseph and Gertrude Handel Coughlin and their fourth son.
When Father Coughlin was 3 years old, his family moved across the state line to Midland, Pa., where his father worked in the steel mills. He grew up in Midland and likewise went to work in the steel mills until he was drafted in May of 1945. He had tried to enlist earlier but had been turned down because of an earlier bout of nephritis. He already had three older brothers and two older sisters in the military.
Coughlin trained for the infantry and was sent to Germany because he knew German from his mother. He became a military policeman and spent 14 months guarding the war crime trials in Nuremberg. What he remembers most about post-war Germany — besides the beauty of Bavaria — were the scores of displaced people. He wrote in a letter to his family, “I wanted to do something more than go home to work in the steel mills, and there was this strong attraction I had toward the monastic life.”
A friend loaned Coughlin a book on the Trappists, written by Thomas Merton. He read it in four days and recognized he was being called to monastic life.
Coughlin was discharged from the Army in November of 1946 and entered Our Lady of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky in January of 1947. He knew he wanted to become both a monk and a priest and “praise the lord through the hours of the day.” He was a postulant for six months and a novitiate for two years. He made his first vows on Easter of 1949.
Father Coughlin has fond memories of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen — then a monsignor — giving a retreat for the men in formation. The retreat lasted eight days, and he recalled the bishop giving three talks a day. “It was always fresh stuff, and he didn’t have any notes,” said the priest.
In 1949, the young monk was among the 30 sent from Our Lady of Gethsemane Abbey to the South Carolina lowcountry town of Moncks Corner. Their assignment was to found another abbey, Our Lady of Mepkin, on land donated by Clare Booth Luce. The monks worked alongside professional laborers to build a dormitory and a church on the grounds of what had once been a plantation, and Father Coughlin has been building faith communities ever since.
Mepkin Abbey has been a working farm from day one. The monks needed to earn their livelihood without disturbing their neighbors and experimented with raising beef cattle, milk cattle, Nubian goats, and chickens. They sold cuttings from magnolias and azaleas and then sold bread baked at the monastery. It was a time of trial and error before they settled on the egg business that now supports the monastery.
Father Coughlin was ordained a Trappist priest by Bishop John J. Russell on Aug. 22, 1953. At the same time, he received minor orders from his abbot. Father Coughlin remained in monastic life for 21 years, the last nine as guest master.
Vatican II and other events of the turbulent 1960s brought about major changes in religious life, and monasteries were not untouched. After a few monks left Mepkin Abbey, the abbot informed those remaining that arrangements could be made if they were called to “serve the Lord in other ways.”
Father Coughlin asked Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler about becoming a parish priest, and he was assigned to St. Joseph’s in Columbia as associate pastor in 1968. Father Coughlin remained at St. Joseph’s for five years, during which time he was incardinated as a diocesan priest.
From St. Joseph’s, Father Coughlin was assigned to St. Andrew’s in Bluffton in 1973. Duty at St. Andrews included serving two missions. In 1978, he was transferred to serve two parishes in Lake City, St. Anne’s and St. Phillip’s. While there, he founded St. Patrick Mission in nearby Johnsonville.
In 1983, it was time for Father Coughlin to nurture another faith community. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was then a mission of Our Lady of the Rosary. Father Coughlin was assigned to both St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish and the school at Our Lady of the Rosary. He secured financial backing for the school at Our Lady of the Rosary while at the same time leading St. Elizabeth Ann Seton from a mission to the thriving parish it is today.
In 1986, Father Coughlin was again asked to nurture a new faith community. This time he had help from a young priest just out of the seminary, Father Anthony Droze. Their assignment was the Maxwell Pointe Catholic Community in Simpsonville. The two priests shared duties, and the community grew into St. Mary Magdalene Parish in 1991.
Father Coughlin retired this past June after serving St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for 18 years. Father Patrick Cooper is now the pastor, but Father Coughlin remains in residence and assists with pastoral duties. He says he is half as busy as he was before. He says Mass, hears confessions, visits people in the hospital, and helps divorced parishioners prepare for the Marriage Tribunal. He spends his spare time reading the Bible, bowling once a week in a league, and playing pinochle a couple of times a month.
Father Coughlin has many fond memories of his priesthood. He considers serving at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as being a high point in his life and is very proud of his congregation and the new church he built in the early 1990s. He says of being a priest, “I think the greatest thing of all is being allowed to say Mass and to give people holy Communion.”
He encourages men to consider the religious life and describes it is a joy-filled life even with the pains and aches that come with any life. “I would recommend this life to a youngster. … That thing about leaving your father and mother and getting back 100 fold — it works.”