Father John T. Coates, 94, pastor emeritus of St. Helena Parish in Blue Bell, died Dec. 11.

Born in Philadelphia, the son of the late Washington and Mary A. (Guckin) Coates, he attended Ascension of Our Lord, James Russell Lowell and St. Helena Elementary Schools and Northeast Catholic High School before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

He was ordained Dec. 15, 1945 by Bishop Hugh L. Lamb at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul and his early assignments were as parochial vicar at St. Mary of the Assumption, Coaldale and St. Eleanor Parish, Collegeville. He then served as chaplain at Graterford State Penitentiary for 23 years.

Father Coates was appointed pastor of St. Helena in 1974 and named pastor emeritus in 1993.


Father Michael Saban was in fifth grade at St. Helena when Father Coates arrived, and he was still pastor when he left for the seminary.

“He knew everybody in the neighborhood, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, and he would visit them all in the hospital,” Father Saban said. “He was a very good man, and was especially kind to the needy. He was a great example of energy and selflessness. He loved Forty Hours and he loved to sing and urge the people to sing. He was always fixing things; the heater, the tractor, whatever.”

Sister of Mercy Cathe Shoulberg was born in St. Helena Parish and returned as school principal under Father Coates.

“I remember at my interview he told me, ‘I want happy kids, happy parents and happy teachers. We want people to feel welcome,’” she recalls.

Sister Cathe believes Father Coates was the closest person she ever knew to Pope John XXIII in personality.

“It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish; Democrat or Republican,” she said. “I have never seen his ministry to the sick duplicated anywhere. He was incredibly kind and pastoral. He never left a stone unturned if a family needed anything, and might appear at their door with a refrigerator, a load of groceries or a vacuum cleaner.

“With all of this he enjoyed working with his hands, and it could be riding the tractor, splitting wood or even cleaning toilets,” Sister Cathe recalls. “He was incredibly unique.”

Bishop Daniel E. Thomas will celebrate Father Coates’ funeral Mass at St. Helena on Dec. 17 at 11 a.m.

Concelebrants are scheduled to include Msgr. Joseph J. Nicolo, Msgr. Daniel J. Sullivan, Father George J. Szparagowski and Father Saban, who will be the homilist.

Father Coates is survived by nieces and nephews. Interment will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia.


Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.