By Pierce O’Reilly
As a boy in the 1930s and ’40s, the Rev. Michael J. Coyne was like many others — he enjoyed life to the full, playing Gaelic football and socializing with his family and friends whenever possible. He had a happy childhood amid the beauty of his native homeland in West Mayo.
Like so many other unemployed Irish youths at the time, Coyne headed for London, eager to free himself from recession and gloomy prospects in the West. He recalls the day he left as "sad and happy."
"It wasn’t the easy option at the time — for many it was the only option," he said of his departure.
Michael Coyne never found gold on the streets of London, but he did find something much more valuable. His career took a dramatic turn while working in a downtown bar in inner London with his brother in the late 1940s. He has never looked back.
"I wasn’t what you’d call a very religious or holy man at that time, yet something was urging me to give the priesthood a try," Coyne said. "I remember saying to my brother that I was thinking about becoming a priest and really that was the first time that I thought about it seriously."
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Msgr. Michael J. Coyne took that huge step back in the early ’50s and on June 19, 1955 he was ordained a priest at St. John Cathedral in Waterford.
Coyne retired last month after 45 years of active ministry after a distinguished and prominent career in several U.S. parishes, most recently St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the church near Atlantic City that he founded.
"It was very exiting for me when I got ordained because I knew I was heading to the U.S., and that was a huge challenge at the time," said Coyne, who is known for views that sometimes challenge the doctrinaire.
Coyne, who is now 70, came from Ireland in search of opportunity. The priesthood was a popular vocation in his homeland at the time and there was no shortage of vocations.
This Mayo native, however, soon found out that the Catholic church in the U.S. was different from that in rural Ireland.
"The Catholic church and religion was very vital to people’s life in Ireland," Coyne said. "It was a little different here. People were more skeptical — they were asking questions and they wanted answers. The young people were also taking a sabbatical during their late teens and early 20s and everyone was worried and asking, would they ever return?"
This young pastor, however, had plenty of energy and enthusiasm. He was eager to reach out to the youth and help those "doubters" to hold on and return even stronger.
"It was a big commitment and at the time, I basically invited everyone to join our church and I always told them that God’s door is never closed," he said.
Coyne is adamant that the church’s moral stands cannot be determined by what’s popular.
"Young people will often disagree with me, but I respect their opinion and they respect mine," he said.
In reaching out to young people and becoming the founding father of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Coyne saw clearly the many problems facing the Catholic church.
"Our flock, located on Route 30, were greatly influenced by the booming economy of Atlantic City," Coyne said. "Gambling became a major problem and we had to face up to it."
This Irish cleric never put his problems to one side. He was eager to address them.
"We must discuss all issues and problems in the open," Coyne said. "It’s the same for the Catholic church; we can’t hide from our problems."
The changing church
The monsignor expects great changes in the church over the next 25 years, especially when the next pope comes into power.
"If I was to start another parish today, I’d be viewing the situation with a completely different outlook," he said.
"If the church is to succeed it must change, like everything else in life."
The idea of married clergy and allowing women to be ordained will no doubt receive serious discussion and debate in the future.
"I can’t see any problem with either, to be honest," he said. "The priesthood can be a lonely life and young men are reluctant to follow their vocation nowadays."
The parish of St. Elizabeth was just a vision for this pastor when he arrived in South Jersey many years ago. Today the busy parish life and cooperation among the many parish organizations is a beacon to the whole community.
"My dream has definitely become a reality, we worked hard and we now have over 1,900 practicing families, that’s a great achievement in such a short time," he said.
Coyne is in excellent health, he still enjoys a morning jog and can be seen most afternoons on the golf course greens improving his handicap.
"I wish I could say that I’m retiring for good, but that won’t happen yet," he said. "I’m just taking a backseat for now, but I’ll be around helping several churches and parishes in the months ahead."
In accepting Coyne’s request for retirement, Bishop DiMarzio said, "You have served in many various assignments and of these, more appreciatively, your 25 years as the founding pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has certainly been of assistance to many in the diocese."
Coyne has been Pre-Cana moderator and a member of the Pastoral Council, Diocesan Task Force, Priests Personnel Board, Board of Consultors, Common Policy Committee for Pastoral Marriage Preparation, Presbyterial Council and Inter-Parochial Board.
He returns to Ireland every summer and won’t miss an All-Ireland football championship clash for anything.
"I suppose people will always ask me what’s my favorite memory during all those years of service, and I always say that it’s not the churches or the masses or the celebrations," he said. "To me the joy comes from the people and seeing them work together as a united group with one goal. Yes, that’s my favorite memory alright."